How Pubic Lice suck (your blood)

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crab louse

A pubic louse, or crab louse

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:

A closer look, indeed! This is a scanning electron micrograph of the sucking end of a crab louse, magnified about 1000 times.

pube lice haustellum

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 The components of the mouthparts responsible for probing the skin and piercing a blood vessel are kept withdrawn within the head unless the insect is feeding… In the front of the head is a small, snout-like tube, the haustellum, which is soft, eversible, and armed with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]

electron micrograph of crab liceEgad.  That little tube? It’s like a hypodermic needle going into one of your blood vessels.

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!

Related Posts:

A Ribald Tale of Love and Lice

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LetterYou may have heard that I told a story at the ScienceOnline2012 conference.  If you missed it, here you go!

Listen to the (Slightly NSFW) Story  via The Monti

Everything I said is true; there are even photos. (Think carefully before you click this link. You’ve been warned.)

There are still pubic lice out there, even in a world of Brazilian waxing.  Here’s a recent paper from the New England Journal of Medicine. Can you spot the crabs?

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.