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NATURE

Dinosaurs Had Lice Too?

April 19th, 2011

photo credit: Claudia Heitler

Can you believe that one of few things we seem to have in common with dinosaurs is …. lice? Those little creepy crawlies that can be a nuisance to us by hanging out in our hair (among other places) seem to have been hitching a ride on dinosaurs over 100 million years ago!

Image credit: Institute of Human Thermodynamics

Dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago so how did the lice species survive all this time?

Here’s a little youtube video about one take on evolution in general:

Although annoying, lice are actually really smart. They are parasites, which means that they depend on their host to live. They also adapt well, which means that when their host changes, they change with it, and this helps them survive. This is how lice have been around all this time. And, luckily, that gives us all sorts of clues to the past.

Left: 44 million year old lice fossil Right: close modern relative. London Natural History Museum

Like all living things, lice have a special code, called DNA.  When we look closely at their code, each kind of lice has its own special twist on the code making it possible to track their changes.

People can host three different kinds of lice depending on where they hang out. And there’s actually a species of bird that hosts 18 different kinds of lice because it has that many different kinds of feathers on its body.

Because scientists are able to track when louse (plural for lice) codes change to mark a new situation, they’ve been able to make a lice family tree to see how lice are related over time.  Lice like to inhabit feathers, fur and hair and so lice history mirrors the bird and mammal family tree quite closely. Lice, for example, that hangs out in our hair has chipanzee lice for ancestors. The lice that hangs out on some other parts of our body are related to gorilla lice!

This new lice family tree dates lice into the time of dinosaurs, the feathery dinosaurs in particular. And it’s important because it tells us that there were lots of different kinds of lice in the time of dinosaurs. This, in turn, means that there were lots of different kinds of birds and animals during that time. And that means that birds and animals probably weren’t just hiding out from dinosaurs hoping to get by until after all the dinosaurs died, as some scientists have been thinking. Birds and animals were evolving into numerous species just fine while the dinoasaurs were around, too.

Since birds are known to have evolved from dinosaurs, one of the scientists, Kevin Johnson from the University of Illinois, who helped make the lice family tree, concluded that “maybe birds just inherited lice from dinosaurs.” Nice inheritance, no thanks!

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6 Comments on “Dinosaurs Had Lice Too?”

  • Emily says:

    I can’t believe dinosaurs had lice too! That’s crazy. I thought you had to have hair to get lice. I guess they didn’t use a special shampoo to get rid of it though!

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