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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evolutionary history of mammalian sucking lice (Phthiraptera: Anoplura)

Jessica E Light12*, Vincent S Smith3, Julie M Allen24, Lance A Durden5 and David L Reed2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843, USA

2 Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

3 Entomology Department, Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD, UK

4 Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

5 Department of Biology, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia 30460, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:292  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-292

Published: 22 September 2010

Abstract

Background

Sucking lice (Phthiraptera: Anoplura) are obligate, permanent ectoparasites of eutherian mammals, parasitizing members of 12 of the 29 recognized mammalian orders and approximately 20% of all mammalian species. These host specific, blood-sucking insects are morphologically adapted for life on mammals: they are wingless, dorso-ventrally flattened, possess tibio-tarsal claws for clinging to host hair, and have piercing mouthparts for feeding. Although there are more than 540 described species of Anoplura and despite the potential economical and medical implications of sucking louse infestations, this study represents the first attempt to examine higher-level anopluran relationships using molecular data. In this study, we use molecular data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of 65 sucking louse taxa with phylogenetic analyses and compare the results to findings based on morphological data. We also estimate divergence times among anopluran taxa and compare our results to host (mammal) relationships.

Results

This study represents the first phylogenetic hypothesis of sucking louse relationships using molecular data and we find significant conflict between phylogenies constructed using molecular and morphological data. We also find that multiple families and genera of sucking lice are not monophyletic and that extensive taxonomic revision will be necessary for this group. Based on our divergence dating analyses, sucking lice diversified in the late Cretaceous, approximately 77 Ma, and soon after the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (ca. 65 Ma) these lice proliferated rapidly to parasitize multiple mammalian orders and families.

Conclusions

The diversification time of sucking lice approximately 77 Ma is in agreement with mammalian evolutionary history: all modern mammal orders are hypothesized to have diverged by 75 Ma thus providing suitable habitat for the colonization and radiation of sucking lice. Despite the concordant timing of diversification events early in the association between anoplurans and mammals, there is substantial conflict between the host and parasite phylogenies. This conflict is likely the result of a complex history of host switching and extinction events that occurred throughout the evolutionary association between sucking lice and their mammalian hosts. It is unlikely that there are any ectoparasite groups (including lice) that tracked the early and rapid radiation of eutherian mammals.