I became an unwilling expert on pubic lice a couple years ago when I bought “crabs” online at the request of a reporter. Really. It’s a long story, and you can listen to a version of it here; the abridged version is someone calling himself “Lice Lice Baby” claimed he would sell you “Giant Japanese Pubic Lice” as pets. He re-branded his crab lice as “Seamonkeys in your Pants.”
The French call pubic lice “papillon d’amour”, but for all the happy euphemistic talk about “the ultimate sharing of your love,” crab lice are blood-sucking parasites. At the time, my primary concern was pointing out that deliberately infesting yourself with pubic lice was probably not a very good idea, and a public health risk.
This somehow made me the go-to person online for pubic lice, which is not, frankly, an expertise I particularly aspired to. I was talking to someone recently about public lice (now a regular occurrence) and I realized that I didn’t know the specific mechanism by which pubic lice suck (aside from the fairly obvious suckage of being infested). I did a little research, and what I found out actually made pubic lice creepier. I did not think that was possible.
One of my primary resources was a paper with this wonderful title:
BURNS D.A. & SIMS T.A. (1988). A closer look at Pthirus pubis, British Journal of Dermatology, 118 (4) 497-503. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.1988.tb02458.x
A closer look, indeed! This is a scanning electron micrograph of the sucking end of a crab louse, magnified about 1000 times.
Pthirus pubis is a member of the Order Anoplura or ‘sucking lice’. It is a solenophage (vessel feeder—from the Greek ‘pipe’ + ‘eating’), introducing its mouthparts directly into a blood vessel to withdraw blood. The components of the mouthparts responsible for probing the skin and piercing a blood vessel are kept withdrawn within the head unless the insect is feeding… In the front of the head is a small, snout-like tube, the haustellum, which is soft, eversible, and armed with teeth. Figure 5 shows the haustellum retracted, and the buccal teeth are clearly visible.
But wait! There’s more!
When the louse is about to feed… the buccal teeth rotate outwards. The teeth cut into the epidermis [skin] with a movement compared to that of a rotary saw, and the haustellum is gradually driven into the dermis. It eventually comes to rest with the buccal teeth fully everted, anchoring the mouthparts in the skin….The stylets are advanced into the dermis as a single bundle and probe for a small blood vessel. Once the stylet bundle has pierced a blood vessel feeding begins. [emphasis mine]
If you haven’t already unconsciously crossed your legs while reading this, this next bit should do the trick. One of the characteristic signs of pubic lice feeding is little blue spots on the skin. It’s a combination of blood leaking out after that mouth-needle is withdrawn and a reaction to the saliva of the louse. Another symptom of a crab louse infestation is described as “black powder in your underwear.” That powder is your dried up blood, after the louse has digested it and pooped it out.
I’m not sure that anyone besides me really needed to know this information, but it is a fascinating example of how insect mouth parts have evolved to make them highly successful external parasites!
Oh, this story is making the rounds again:
Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species
Pubic lice, the crab-shaped insects that have dwelled in human groins since the beginning of history, are disappearing. Doctors say bikini waxing may be the reason. Waning infestations of the bloodsuckers have been linked by doctors to pubic depilation
Like the last time, this story is getting a lot of popular press. However, what is presented is a lot of anecdotal evidence—stories without a lot of actual data.
I will say that the evidence is much better than the last time this story made the rounds, and this is a far better written story. However, please note that conspicuously sprinkled through the article are links to a bunch of major grooming appliance and beauty product companies. Gosh, I can’t imagine why they might have a vested interest in promoting the idea that waxing and shaving your short and curlies might prevent pubic lice.
Here’s an important part of the story:
“Incidence data aren’t kept by the World Health Organization in Geneva because the gray, six-legged, millimeter-long louse doesn’t transmit disease, and national authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and U.K.’s Health Protection Agency don’t collect the information.”
We only have anecdotal data from local health centers, such as the ones interviewed in the story. And:
“Historically, it’s been very difficult to get incidence data on pubic lice simply because people don’t like to report it,” said Richard Russell, director of medical entomology at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. “In over 40 years, I could count on two hands the number of people who had brought pubic lice in for identification and admitted to knowing what they were.”
If you want to start trimming your shrubbery, go right ahead. But don’t do it because you think it will protect yourself from pubic lice, do it because you want to (for some inexplicable reason that I don’t understand myself, frankly.) You should also be aware that injuries from genital grooming are on the rise, and it is not without risk. This is rightly pointed out in the article, for which I again give them props.
The article ends with this quote from a scientist. Emphasis mine in this quote:
“The life cycle of the female pubic louse ends if it’s unable to find a suitable place to lay eggs, Russell said, making it plausible that pubic hair removal is reducing populations of the insect. “It makes sense from the point of the view of the biology of the beast, but how you’d ever find out, I don’t know,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “
We probably won’t ever really know the answer question of habitat destruction for the crab louse. This is ‘news’ only because crotch crickets are interesting because of the pastures they graze in. (Which, of course, is exactly why -I- wrote about them!)
But don’t forget that just because a few people in the US and Down Under (snorf!) remove their body hair, the vast majority of people have intact lady gardens. This is an attention-getting article, not news.
You may have heard that I told a story at the ScienceOnline2012 conference. If you missed it, here you go!
Everything I said is true; there are even photos. (Think carefully before you click this link. You’ve been warned.)
Ben Lillie’s story is right after mine, and is very different, and incredibly powerful. I got a little verklempt. Ben now runs The StoryCollider, which is an amazing project to collect science stories.
I had been mentally drafting something about storytelling and science, but then Emily at This View of Life wrote something so spot on in summary of ScienceOnline I defer to her:
“I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.
No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.
We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators. We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.
What she said. Go read the rest.
I’ll try to put together a more meaningful summary of the Science Online conference later this week, but for the moment I’m enjoying the accomplishment of briefly trending on Twitter. Even if it is for telling a story about Seamonkeys in your Pants.
Admit it–haven’t you wondered about this? What IS the effect of all that hair removal down there on the local flora and fauna? Fortunately, scientists have answered that question. Sort of. For women in Leeds, England. (Maybe.)
Armstrong, N. (2006). Did the “Brazilian” kill the pubic louse? Sexually Transmitted Infections, 82 (3), 265-266 DOI: 10.1136/sti.2005.018671
I’ve seen this paper cited over and over, but what you don’t realize until you actually read it is that….it doesn’t actually have any significant conclusions. The authors looked at the occurrence of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and pubic lice between 1997 and 2003 in people showing up at a public GYN clinic. While clap and chlamydia increased significantly, the frequency of pubic lice declined significantly during the same period.
The graph itself is deceptive. The second Y axis actually shows the percentage decreasing from 0.5% of cases seen to 0.15% cases seen. So, a rare thing got…more rare. Additionally, all the numbers are reported as a percentage, so there is no information at all about just how many total cases we are looking at. The total group seen has to be at least 200 people/year, since otherwise the percentages indicate sexually active headless torsos. But we really have no idea if this is any sort of a representative sample of the general population.
There is a much larger issue with this study, however. They have no data on what the waxing rate is in either the population of women showing up in their clinic, or the population at large. None. All they have is anecdotal stories that waxing became more popular during that time period. So, they aren’t even able to show a correlation; they just speculated that there would be a correlation, if there was any data.
There is a certain logical beauty in linking the destruction of Ho-Ha forests by clear-cutting and the death of the native fauna. (A crab louse paper from 1983 describes them as “swinging from hair to hair” rather like monkeys, BTW.) However, there simply is no evidence for for a link between snatch waxing and pubic lice decline.
Honestly? I think the only reason this paper made it past the journal editors was because it was about pubic lice, and crotch crickets are inherently interesting because of the pastures they graze in. (Which, of course, is exactly why -I- am writing about them!)
I did some investigating (in the library, pervs!) and found that there is actually data available on happy trail hair removal for women in the US and Australia. The percentage of Australian college women who shaved their pudenda was around 48% during the same time period; but that means that the majority of women still had some or all of their original carpeting, whether or not it still matched the drapes.
We also know from a very detailed study of American women in 2010 that there is no dominant pattern to hair removal in the US. Women aged 18-24 were most likely of all age groups to have naked crotches, but even then only 38% of them were hair free down there. Having a hairless muffin was actually the least common pattern of body hair in the over 2,450 women studied. Additionally, removal of one’s No-No Fro was NOT related to having experienced an STD infection in that study–which strongly suggests that the sample used for the “Brazilian hypothesis” was not representative.
It is far too soon to say if pubic lice are an endangered species. I know that when I was teaching entomology regularly, at least one student a year would manage to collect a crab louse, so they are still out there.
As for me, I plan to keep my Map of Tasmania intact. Hope that wasn’t overly sharing.
EDITED TO ADD NOTE: a 2013 update, since there is another press release out about pubic lice. Still not time to list pubic lice as an endangered species, folks. The majority of the world still has intact shrubbery.
As much as that sounds like a euphemism, it isn’t.
Remember the crazy guy who claims he has specially bred giant Japanese crab lice that don’t bite? And that they make great pets? (“Like Sea Monkeys in Your Pants!”)
So, when I wrote about that–and how utterly full of shit that website is–I got an email from a reporter. The LoveBugz.net website offers to send you your very own “pets” if you send them your address and a buck. The reporter wanted to buy some lice and have me look at them.
I thought the site was just a creative ad-farm scheme, so said “Sure! Send ‘em to me!”
It had to be a a scam. Who is going to go to the Better Business Bureau and complain that they didn’t get the pubic lice they paid for?
And then: An envelope DID show up. (Sealed with duct tape, too!)
It appears to have a postal mark from Teterboro, NJ. And scrawled across the front: “Live Insects! Handle with Care!”
Inside was a folded letter, and inside the letter was this:
I think most of you are having the same reaction I did: EW.
The letter that came with it had instructions:
I think I can safely speak for the vast majority of the readers of this blog when I say “Oh, HELL no!”
I’ll wait while the mass collective shuddering dies down.
So–I put the “specimen” in a sealed tupperware container with a moist towel, set it on my plant warming pad (since lice are triggered to emerge by moisture and heat), and took them to work with me the next day. Where 2 graduate students were fascinated, and 1 was pretty much traumatized by the whole concept and probably tried to autoclave herself after I left the lab.
[Also, a tip: if you walk into your new workplace brandishing a container of putative pubic lice and sand, you may want to provide a more detailed back story than "I bought them on the internet." Just some advice.]
Anyway, we looked carefully under the scope, and aside from documenting that Mr. LoveBugz is (a) brunette; and (b) has pubic hair that is very smooth and well conditioned; we found no nits or lice.
There was sand; and there was some stuff that looked like seed capsules; but unless lice have developed egg capsules that look remarkably like they have cell walls, there were no nits, dead or alive.
While plant cells have cell walls, no animal cells do. Ergo: This ain’t an animal.
Everything I picked out of that sample turned out to look very similar–plant material, not animal.
There are regrettably few photos of crab lice nits available online, although plenty exist for head lice. You can see some sculpturing of the outer egg case in this photo, but nothing like…well, cell walls. You don’t see it in this electron micrograph, either.
There was a hole in the envelope, so it is entirely possible that the nits that were promised fell out of the envelope in transit. However, why in the world would you not send them in a sealed container of some kind? Even a paper towel in an unsealed Baggie™ would have worked.
And why mail them in sand? Sand is abrasive, and likely to crush anything else during transit in surface mail. Sending the lice packed in sand, and telling the recipient to put sand in their undies and not wash for a week?
Yeah, that’ll happen.
Conclusion: The Site is Still Bullshit.
But they are willing to go a long way to keep up their hoax and/or delusion.
EDITED TO ADD: Some folks are arguing that I haven’t “proven” that the site is BS. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They claim to have lice that don’t drink blood and aren’t irritating–which contradicts what we know about all 3 types of human body lice for recorded history, as well as physical evidence for an even long period of time.
They have provided no additional evidence for me to evaluate that claim, and in fact set things up so it would fail. I stick with my conclusion.
Additional things to read about pubic lice: