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How lice and bird feathers stick together

Dec. 8, 2003 University of Utah biologists twirled louse-infested bird feathers on an electric fan and flew pigeons and doves like kites on strings in a study that found small lice stick to small birds and big lice prefer big birds.

The study also showed why size matters to parasites: Lice infest bird species with feathers that are just the right size so the insects can hide between individual "barbs" the hair-like branches that extend from the shaft of each feather. When lice can hide in the feathers, the birds cannot preen them off with their beaks.

Why should anyone care? More than half of all species on Earth are parasites, or bacteria and viruses that act like parasites. The great diversity of parasites is tied to the fact that many parasite species evolved so each usually infests only one species of host organism.

The study "is one of the best demonstrations to date of why parasites are often specific to a single species of host and under what conditions they jump hosts," said evolutionary ecologist Dale H. Clayton, the study's first author and an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah. "This is of strong interest to the public, particularly when it concerns parasites such as SARS and the West Nile virus."

"Sometimes parasites from domestic animals switch to humans and sometimes they don't," says biology doctoral student Sarah E. Bush, a co-author of the study. "So looking at how parasites on birds switch to other species of birds may help us understand how parasites from mammals switch to humans."

The study is being published online the week of Dec. 8, 2003, by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was conducted by Clayton; Bush; former biology undergraduate Brad Goates, now a University of Utah medical student; and former postdoctoral researcher Kevin Johnson, now at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

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8-Dec-2003


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