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How lice and bird feathers stick together

people worldwide in a 2003 outbreak, is caused by a coronavirus that is believed to have jumped to humans from civets, which are nocturnal, cat-shaped creatures. The West Nile virus is spread from birds and mosquitoes to humans.

While the new study is not immediately relevant to SARS and West Nile, "if we know why parasites use some hosts and not other hosts, then we can begin to predict what hosts may get hit in the future by a given parasite," Clayton says.

Genealogy for lice and birds

In one part of the study, the researchers analyzed genetic material from 19 species of lice and 24 species of pigeons and doves. That allowed them to construct evolutionary family trees for the lice and the birds, showing how each species was related to or descended from other species during the last 30 million years.

Those evolutionary trees revealed that louse species evolved in concert with various species of pigeons and doves they infest. As a result, "big birds have big lice, small birds have small lice," says Bush.

"We have shown that something as simple as the changing size of a parasite's environment the bird feather can cause new species of lice to form," Clayton says.

"Our research suggests that humans don't pick up lice from chimps and baboons because those lice evolved to hang onto to coarser hair. On an even broader level, the study suggests size matters in terms of what parasites infest a host. Size is one of the most fundamental properties of all living organisms. Something as simple as size even may be dictating what cells can be invaded by parasites like those that cause malaria."

Experiments to learn why bird size matters to lice

After making measurements to confirm bigger birds have bigger feathers and smaller birds have smaller feathers, the researchers conducted three sets of experiments to learn why big lice could only survive on birds with big feathers.

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8-Dec-2003


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