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Lice don't lie / Christy Wilcox

Parasites provide clues about the social life of lemurs

Brown mouse lemur in Madagascar. From Wikipedia
Brown mouse lemur in Madagascar. From Wikipedia

The brown mouse lemur, weighing only 40 grams, is one of the smallest primate species in the world. Due to the tiny size of these lemurs, combined with their nocturnal activity in trees, they are difficult to track and observe. Sara Zodi, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and her colleagues came up with an ingenious way to study the interrelationships between these little lemurs: tracking their lice.

 

Scientists estimate that lice evolved at least 130 million years ago and fed on the blood of feathered dinosaurs. Today they live on almost all species of birds and mammals. Each of the lice species tends to prefer a specific and single species of host, or species very close to each other, on which it lives and whose blood it feeds on. Also, in order for the lice to reproduce and spread, the hosts must come into contact with each other (like children in kindergarten, as many parents know). In wild animal species, lice almost never change hosts, unless the animals make physical contact - by fighting, nesting together or mating.

Zodie and her colleagues studied murres in Madagascar and used traps to monitor their movements. They marked lice from the species Lemurpediculus verrucolsus, which will treat the brown mouse lemur, with a unique color code using nail polish. As the study progressed, the researchers continued to trap the teachers and observe the lice on them to see if marked lice switched hosts.

For a month, during the breeding season, they recorded 76 transitions between 14 and teachers, all males. According to the researchers, the transfers between the males probably occurred during fights over females, but what is more interesting is that the lice data identified 13 new phenomena of social interactions that the traps failed to predict. One of these was the finding that lemurs move greater distances than previously thought: some lice transfers occurred between individuals captured more than 600 meters apart.

This is not the first study to use lice to get a broader scientific picture, but it is among the first to use them to study the behavior of a species living in the wild. The team hopes that this study will prove the effectiveness of the method.

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Based on a blog entry at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/science-sushi

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