Thursday Trivia: Seal Lice

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The oceans are one of the very few places in the world where insects are not a dominant fauna. But even there, insects do exist!lepidophthirusmacrorhini

An entire family of lice specializes just on carnivorous pinnipeds, (seals, walrus, and sea lions).  It’s called Echinophthiriidae, and I had to memorize that name when I was in my first graduate entomology course.  And, spell it correctly to get full credit on the exam.

(Why yes, 20 years later, I am still a little bitter about that. On the other hand, at important cocktail parties, I always know how to start a conversation.)

The seal louse has the wonderful species name Echinophthirius horridus; another genus is called Antarctophthirus. Like other sucking lice, they inject a little mouthtube into their host and suck their blood.  They only feed on land; in the water they just hang on with their claws.

The lice in this family of insects have several special modifications from regular lice; their cuticle (waxy covering of the exoskeleton) is thicker, it traps seal sebum (body oils), and also forms scales which create a pocket of air under the oil and water for the insect to breathe while the seal is swimming.

How common are they? A 1972 study found about 75% of Northern Fur Seals had lice, and many had more than one species of seal louse.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t find a more recent study in which someone closely examined 75+ seals for lice.

Clearly, there is a publication out there waiting to happen.


2 thoughts on “Thursday Trivia: Seal Lice

  1. Aw come on, Echinophthiriidae isn’t that horrible to spell (it’s certainly no worse than Kniphofia uvaria or Solenostemon scutellarioides).

    It was learning to distinguish all those black beetles that nearly drove me ’round the twist! (Tho’ I will confess that they are easier than the multitudes of GYCs — goddam yellow composite flowers).

    andrea

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