Scratching an ancient itch: an Eocene bird louse fossil.
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (Suppl.), Biology Letters. 271, no. S5: 255-258.
Scratching an ancient itch: an Eocene bird louse fossil
WAPPLER, T., V.S. SMITH, AND R. C. DALGLEISH.
Corresponding Author: Vincent Smith
Status: Published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (Suppl.), Biology Letters
Mini Press Release
An exceptionally preserved fossil louse from the Eocene of Germany shows that birds have been infested with parasitic insects for at least the last 44 million years. Remains of the specimen’s last meal of feathers can be seen preserved within its gut, showing that it ate feathers like its modern relatives. The fossil is remarkably similar to feather lice found on today's waterfowl and shorebirds, suggesting that as long as there have been feathers, there are likely to have been feather lice. This raises the possibility that bird lice were inherited from early-feathered dinosaurs.
Of the thirty extant orders of insects, all but one, the parasitic lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera), have a confirmed fossil record. Here we report the discovery of what appears to be the first bird louse fossil – an exceptionally well-preserved specimen collected from the crater of the Eckfeld maar near Manderscheid, Germany. The 44 million year old specimen shows close phylogenetic affinities with modern feather louse ectoparasites of aquatic birds. Preservation of feather remnants in the specimens’ foregut confirms its association as a bird ectoparasite. Based on a phylogenetic analysis of the specimen and palaeoecological data we suggest this louse was the parasite of a large ancestor to modern Anseriformes (swans, geese and ducks) or Charadriiformes (shorebirds). The crown group position of this fossil in the phylogeny of lice confirms the groups’ long coevolutionary history with birds and points to an early origin for lice, perhaps inherited from early-feathered theropod dinosaurs.
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Wappler, T., V.S. Smith, and R. C. Dalgleish. (2004) Scratching an ancient itch: an Eocene bird louse fossil. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (Suppl.), Biology Letters. 03bl0387.S2.
- Figure 1. Megamenopon rasnitsyni and its extant close relative Holomenopon brevithoracicum (Piaget). (a) Complete exoskeleton of Megamenopon rasnitsyni. (b) Enlargement of the crop (encircled), part of the foregut visible within the abdomen. (c) Enlargement of the rectangular section highlighted in 1b showing feather barbules preserved within the crop. (d) Holomenopon brevithoracicum from a mute swan (Cygnus olor (Gmelin)). (e) Enlargement of the Holomenopon crop. (f) Enlargement of the section highlighted in 1e showing feather barbules within the Holomenopon crop. Scale bars: (a–b) 2mm, (c) 0.125mm, (d) 0.5mm, (e) 0.3mm, (f) 0.1mm. Copyright V.Smith, 2004.
- Figure 2. Phylogenetic position of Megamenopon gen. nov. within the phylogeny for amblyceran lice of birds and mammals. Decay indices are indicated below the nodes (TBR branch swapping, 1,000 replicates). (a) Phylogeny of the principal amblyceran louse clades. Number of terminal taxa given in parentheses. Megamenopon is placed within the Austromenopon-complex that are parasites of aquatic birds. (b) Strict consensus of two most parsimonious trees for the Austromenopon-complex. Megamenopon is either placed in a trichotomy with Austromenopon and Holomenopon as shown here or as sister taxon to a Austromenopon-Holomenopon clade. These lice parasitise anseriform, charadriiform and procellariiform birds. Copyright V.Smith, 2004.
- Supplementary Figure. Artist's impression of the bird louse Megamenopon rasnitsyni. Illustration and copyright E. Gröning, 2003.