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Vince Smith & Rod Page*

           === Anoplura 
     ===|  === Rhyncophthirina 
<<===|  |
     |  ====== Ischnocera 
     ========= Amblycera 

Containing clade(s): Hemipteroid assemblage


Table of Contents

Morphological Characters
Discussion of Phylogenetic Relationships


Lice belong to the order Phthiraptera, and are the only truly parasitic group amongst the exopterygote insects. As permanent ectoparasites of most birds and mammals they exhibit a remarkable level of host specificity which is unparalleled in most other metazoan parasites. Most individuals will spend their entire life cycle on a single host, with transmission largely occurring opportunistically when hosts are in close contact with each other, such as during breeding (but see also phoresy). This unique lifestyle has led to numerous adaptations according to their precise ecological niche on the host, consequently lice are considerably diverse in terms of their size and general body form. Specializations in the diet of lice underpin their major taxonomic divisions and they can be broadly separated into those that feed on skin debris, feathers and fur, and those that have specialized in blood feeding.

To date there are more than 3000 known species of lice and yet many more remain undescribed. With the possible exception of those species that impinge on the activity of humans and their livestock, the true biology of this cryptic group of insects remains obscure, but their remarkable host specificity has attracted much recent attention by evolutionary biologists interested in the ecology and cospeciation of lice and their hosts. top

Morphological Characters



The order Phthiraptera has been traditionally divided into two groups according to their different feeding habits: the chewing lice or "Mallophaga", and the Anoplura, colloquially known as the sucking lice. It is commonly assumed that the order is derived from a primitive Pscopteran-like ancestor which became parasitic first on birds.

Chewing lice with their large head and mandibles comprise the largest group with some 2900 species. These are separable into three distinct superfamilies - the Amblycera, Ischnocera and Rhyncophthirina. Amblycerans are found on a diverse range of mammals and birds, and have retained some of the more primitive characteristics of the order, with a lesser degree of specialization for particular habitats. This is reflected in their classification, and they divided into around sixty homogenous genera, whilst the Ischnocera are contained by over a hundred and fifty genera, of which around three quarters are confined to birds. Amblycera chew away at younger feathers and soft areas of the skin, causing localized bleeding from which some can drink. They usually roam freely about the surface of their host and seldom attach firmly to fur or feathers, unlike the avian Ischnocera which are more site specific, and will attach securely to the feathers or fur to escape the preening activity of their host. Ischnocera confine themselves to feeding on the downy part of feathers and softer fur. The Rhyncophthirina comprises a single genus which parasitise elephants and wart-hogs. They are a small louse carrying mandibles at the end of a long proboscis-like snout. This allows them to drill through their hosts thick skin.

Anoplura are a much smaller group comprised of some 500 species. These are restricted to mammals, and like the Rhyncophthirina, feed using maxillae positioned at the end of a snout-like protrusion to pierce the skin. Feeding solely on blood they remain at the feeding site causing localized skin irritations to their host. Because of this they are the vectors to a number of blood borne diseases. This group includes the human louse Pediculus humanus, consequently they are probably the most well studied louse group. top

Discussion of Phylogenetic Relationships

The phylogenetic relationships and classification of the four main groups of lice have been matters of contention for some time. A cladistic analysis of the morphological data conducted by Lyal (1985), detailed objections to the traditional classification of lice into "Mallophaga" and Anoplura. His study supported the monophyly of the Phthiraptera, with Anoplura and Rhyncophthirina forming a monophletic group, sister group to the Ischnocera; the Amblycera are the sister group of this assemblage. This working hypothesis seems to of received general support amongst most leading lice systematists. Nevertheless, the familial relationships amongst most major groups of lice are poorly understood, and resolution of these relationships await an analysis of all available morphological data, as well as the gathering of molecular information. These relationships will not be easy to uncover as many groups have had a long and complex independent history, frequently involving instances of parallel and convergent evolution. top


Clay, T. 1949. Some problems in the evolution of a group of 
          ectoparasites. Evolution 3: 279-299.

Clay, T.  1951. An introduction to a classification of the 
          avian Ischnocera (Mallophaga): Part I. Transactions 
          of the Royal Entomological Society of London 102,2:

Clay, T.  1970. The Amblycera (Phthiraptera: Insecta). Bulletin 
          of the British Museum of Natural History Entomology 
          25: 75-98.

Demastes, J. W. and M. S. Hafner 1993. Cospeciation of pocket 
          gophers (Geomys) and their chewing lice (Geomydoecus). 
          Journal of Mammalogy 74(3): 521-530.

Durden, L. A. and G. G. Musser 1994. The sucking lice (Insecta, 
          Anoplura) of the world: A taxonomic checklist with records 
          of mammalian hosts and geographic distributions. Bulletin 
          of the British Museum of Natural History 218: 90 pp.

Hafner, M. S. and R. D. M. Page 1995. Molecular phylogenies 
          and host-parasite cospeciation: gophers and lice as 
          a model system. Philosophical Transactions of the 
          Royal Society of London. Series B. 349: 77-83.

Hopkins, G. H. E. and T. Clay 1952. A checklist of the genera 
          and species of mallophaga. London, British Museum of 
          Natural History.

Lakshminarayana, K. V. 1986. Data book for the study of chewing 
          lice (Phthiraptera : Insecta). Records of the Zoological 
          Survey of India: Miscellaneous Publication, Occasional 
          Paper  81: 1-63.

Lyal, C. H. C. 1985. A cladistic analysis and classification 
          of trichodectid mammal lice (Phthiraptera: Ischnocera). 
          Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) 51(3): 

Page, D. M., R. D. Price, et al. 1995. Phylogeny of Geomydoecus 
          and Thomomydoecus pocket gopher lice (Phthiraptera: 
          Trichodectidae) infered from cladistic analysis of 
          adult and first instar morphology. Systematic Entomology 
          20: 129-143.

Page, R. D. M. 1994. Parallel phylogenies: Reconstructing 
          the history of host-parasite assemblages. Cladistics 
          10: 155-173.

Pilgrim, R. L. C. and R. L. Palma 1982. A list of the chewing 
          lice (Insecta: Mallophaga) from birds in New Zealand. 
          National Museum of New Zealand Miscellaneous Series 
          6: 1-32.

Rothschild, M. and T. Clay (1952). Fleas, flukes & Cuckoos: A 
          study of bird ectoparasites. Colins (New Naturalist Series).

Ròzsa, L. 1993. Speciation patterns of ectoparasites and "straggling"
          lice. International Journal for Parasitiology 23(7): 


Title Illustration

  • Representitives of the four main superfamilies of lice (from G. Mauersberger & E. Mey, 1993. "Mallophagen un Vogelsystem- Beitrag zur Diskussion der 'Parasitophyletik'." Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin, 69, Suppl. Annalen Ornithologie, 17 3-30).

    Drawing copyright © 1993, Eberhard Mey. top

    About this page

    The initial Tree-of-Life page for the Phthiraptera was prepared by V.S. Smith and R.D.M. Page with the assistance of Bill Young. Feedback from readers regarding errors, mistakes and ommissions will be appreciated as will suggestions for and contributions of photographs.

    Vince Smith
    E-mail: vincent.s.smith@udcf.gla.ac.uk.
    Graham Kerr Building,University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ (Scotland, U.K.)

    Rod Page
    E-mail: r.page@bio.gla.ac.uk.
    Graham Kerr Building,University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ (Scotland, U.K.)

    Bill Young
    27 East Mains, Menstrie, Scotland, U.K.

    On line: 7 March 1997
    Last saved: 6 March 1997 top

    Information on the Internet

    Additional information on lice can be found at the following web sites:


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