Scratching the surface of social interaction
26 Mar 2012
It can be difficult to uncover the behavior of small, shy, nocturnal primates like the brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus), especially in the dense rainforests of Madagascar where this lemur lives. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Ecology shows that the social interactions of brown mouse lemurs can be monitored by mapping the transfer of tagged lice.
Brown mouse lemurs are the only known host of the parasitic louse Lemurpediculus verruculosus. The lice have evolved to stay attached to the sparse hair on the lemurs' ears, where they feed on the lemur’s blood, and can only survive for a few hours if separated from their host. Most transfer of lice between hosts is therefore by direct contact. Sarah Zohdy from the University of Helsinki tagged individual lice from trapped lemurs using colored nail varnish to see if they were transmitted during social interactions between hosts in the wild.
The team of researchers from Finland, USA, and Madagascar, found that the lice were transferred between 43% of the population – all of them males. The lice were found on their ears, testes, and eyelids and the pattern of louse transfer provided new information about the habits of these hard-to-study creatures.
Sarah Zohdy explained, "Male lemurs are known to share nest-holes (and lice) however louse transfer peaked during the breeding season, indicating a greater number of social interactions - probably conflicts over females. There was no overall association between age and louse transfer. The youngest male in the study had the worst louse infestation, but only donated one louse, indicating a low number of interactions, while the eldest male, who also had a heavy infestation, appeared to be more sociable, collecting lice from many donors. Other males appeared to be 'superspreaders' donating but not collecting lice."
The pattern of transferred lice mapped on to animal catch sites also showed that lemurs travel much greater distances and interact over a wider geographic area than previously thought.
In Madagascar the use of tagged lice has provided an extraordinary insight into the life of the brown mouse lemur (and the natural movement of parasites) in their natural habitat. Given the success of parasites throughout the animal kingdom this technique has the potential to find new (if itchy) information about other elusive animals.
Dr Hilary Glover
Scientific Press Officer, BioMed Central
Tel: +44 (0) 20 3192 2370
Mob: +44 (0) 778 698 1967
Notes to Editors
1. Mapping the Social Network: Tracking lice in a wild primate (Microcebus rufus) population to infer social contacts and vector potential
Sarah Zohdy, Addison D Kemp, Lance A Durden, Patricia C Wright and Jukka Jernvall
BMC Ecology 2012, 12:4 doi:10.1186/1472-6785-12-4
Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.
Article citation and URL available on request on the day of publication.
2. BMC Ecology is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on environmental, behavioral and population ecology as well as biodiversity of plants, animals and microbes.
3. BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.