You may have heard that I told a slightly rude 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.
A fabulous new development in louse control! I’ve written before about the problem of head lice becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides, making treatment much more difficult. A new device received approval from the FDA to be this year–and it’s a lot of hot air.
Goates, B., Atkin, J., Wilding, K., Birch, K., Cottam, M., Bush, S., & Clayton, D. (2006). An Effective Nonchemical Treatment for Head Lice: A Lot of Hot Air. PEDIATRICS, 118 (5), 1962-1970 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-1847
This device is a great story of how basic ecological research can lead to improvements in human health. It all starts with birds.
Those of us who keep chickens or work with wild birds know that they have an amazing assortment of ectoparasites–parasites that live on the outside of the body (“ecto” = external). Most of these are called “feather lice.”
Feather lice are a fascinating group of animals; the researchers in this lab have studied, among other things, how lice have evolved to match the color of their host birds. I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Dale Clayton, the lead researcher in this story, is Mr. Bird Lice. Over the last 2 decades, he’s published a steady stream of fascinating papers (and books!) about lice and their co-evolutionary relationships with their hosts.
It was because of Clayton’s research that the University of Utah lured him away from his job at Oxford in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, Clayton discovered exchanging jolly old (damp) England for Utah’s arid climate made keeping his lousy subjects alive extremely difficult. In fact, his lice colonies dried out and died.
Having dead research subjects will put a serious dent in one’s research productivity.
His travails in lice-rearing, however, were what set a lightbulb off when his children came home with head lice. If his research lice dessicated and died, could he make head lice dry out and die too? Alas, it proved to be a much harder puzzle than he thought:
“Over the next several years a variety of methods were tested in Clayton’s lab, ranging from the use of chemical desiccants, to heat caps fitted with electrodes, to rice bag caps heated in a microwave, to various hair dryers and blowers up to the size of a leaf blower “
After almost 20 years of tinkering, the Lousebuster is now FDA approved and on the market. It also happens does a really, really good job of killing the insects using only hot air!
I know what you are thinking–unfortunately, it is not enough to have a blow-dryer, as you can see here in the results comparing the percent of lice being killed with different methods. (I also am rather relieved that wall-mounted hand driers were not effective. I can only imagine the lines at the airport bathroom if families traveling decided to do a little de–lousing between connections.)
The other nice item is that the company selling the Lousebuster requires that anyone purchasing them be certified in their use. That means that no one should have a scalded scalp, and it should actually perform at the 95-99% louse mortality levels reported in various publications.
A newer version released December 2010 is quieter and “works on curly hair”.
So hoist one to toast Dr. Clayton and his lab in their demonstration of how basic research pays off for all of us!!
The symbolic meaning of Lice (at Symbolic-Meanings.com)
But I digress.
Generally, the more florid my dreams, the more likely that I’ve eaten something regrettable just before bedtime. (Burritos before bed–not a good idea.)
Dreaming of lice perhaps means that you are concerned for your health, or that you saw something on the news that made you fear them. Head lice are a pretty common occurrence in kids, and it’s a major problem I’ve covered before. But — a spinal condition? Overwork? From her post:
“When Lice come to our attention in our dreams, it can be an indication that our subconscious is trying to tell us to let go of some pesky people or ideals in our lives. When we are being “sucked dry” by too many responsibilities, too many obligations, or torn in too many directions by well-meaning people, the Louse will come to our attention as a message to withdraw ourselves and resist being pulled into situations we do not wish for ourselves.
The fact that you were dreaming of Lice around your head and down the spine indicates that you may be dealing with some challenging thoughts (the head & spinal cord being symbolic of the nervous system & the origin of thought), that there are many choices before you – and all of them may be “bugging” you.”
This seems a little over elaborate. How about just “you’re freaked out your kid will get lice. They are creepy”?
From farther down in her lice post:
Furthermore, the Louse never takes more from its host than either can handle (for to do so would destroy its own livelihood). This is a message that we can all learn from. Sometimes when Lice are in our dreams it indicates that we are either asking too much from our loved ones, or they are asking too much of us.
That is not true. Exanguination by lice does happen, although it’s usually limited to small animals. This idea that nature is in balance and as it should be is overly romantic, and a common mistake in New Age-y types.
My grandparents had Edgar Cayce’ dream books when I was a kid, and I spent some time thinking about his system of symbolism. Carl Jung also mentioned insects occasionally; but mostly in a way to relate to synchronicity. Which… is completely unsupported by evidence. Like this dream interpretation stuff. Eventually, I rejected it all.
There is a fairly large body of work about dream interpretation that has a more scientific background. Some of the coolest insights comes from neurological work on dreaming deficits in brain-damaged patients; it’s helped locate a lot of the actual brain structures involved in dreaming.
Generally, bizarre dreams are hugely over reported; most dreams are simply the same as everyday experiences. From a scientific review paper:
“Taken together, these detailed descriptive studies provide a consistent picture of REM dream reports as portraying a reasonable simulation of the dreamer’s waking world. The dream scenario is original, but not usually fantastic, and the emotions are generally appropriate to the situation when they are present….
Despite the originality and creativity that is displayed in the cognitive production of dreams, and even given the aspects of dream content that are not understood, most dreams are more realistic and based in everyday life than is suggested by any traditional dream theory. In addition, much dream content seems more transparent than might be expected by clinical theories that emphasize disguise and/or symbolism in understanding dreams.” [emphasis mine]
Feel free to offer up your more interesting insect dreams in the comments!
Domhoff, G. W. (2005). The content of dreams: Methodologic and theoretical implications. In M. H. Kryger, T. Roth, & W. C. Dement (Eds.), Principles and Practies of Sleep Medicine (4th Ed., pp. 522-534). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
S. Schwartza, T. T. Dang-Vuc, A. Ponza, S. Duhouxa, P. Maquetc. (2005). Dreaming: a neuropsychological view. SCHWEI ZER ARCHIV FÜR NEUROLOGIE UND PSYCHIATRIE 156: 427-439.
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.
No. Really. From the Washington Post:
“The Hair Whisperer is a nice name for an unappetizing – but booming – business. Ms. Goldreyer, who lives in Brentwood, Calif., is a lice-removal expert. Parents hire her (and now her staff of a dozen) to make house calls, meticulously check through children’s hair and, if lice are found, treat them with nontoxic products.”
You also can find ads for additional lice whisperers at Craig’s list. Apparently lice are a recession-proof, growth industry. And, for those who have the cash, it’s much simpler to have someone else do the work for you!
Interestingly, a new paper came out this week that evaluates the effectiveness of screening for lice:
“Visual inspection underestimated the true prevalence of active infestation by a factor of 3.5,” the authors write. Wet combing had a significantly higher sensitivity for detecting active infestations, correctly identifying them in 90.5 percent of the children (vs. 28.6 percent for visual inspections).”
Here’s the actual peer-reviewed paper: Accuracy of Diagnosis of Pediculosis Capitis: Visual Inspection vs Wet Combing. Claudia Jahnke, et al. Arch Dermatol. 2009;145(3):309-313.
It was a nicely done partly blind study with 5 elementary schools. It also suggests that the “salon” approach to lice combing may be on the right track!
One thing does trouble me, though–not a single one of the 3 websites I’ve listed here has a kid of color on the site. Do they know how to deal with “special” hair? Or is that just a reflection of a model that means that only rich (white) kids get the best treatment?
Recently, someone wrote to Skepchick and declared: “Creativity will never come from the skeptics corner.”
This is someone who clearly hasn’t actually practiced science, because every single project I’ve ever been involved with has involved scrounging, scavenging, jury-rigging, prototyping, and tinkering to come up with needed equipment and protocols. Science is intensely creative.
Last week I happened to stumble across an article that demonstrates that creativity, and as a bonus, it’s about lice! Lice continue to be a big hit at the Bug Blog, with the posts on pubic lice getting the top hits most days.
This nifty little paper describes some inventive entomological engineering related to lice:
“An automated feeding apparatus was developed to maintain the human head louse Pediculus capitis DeGeer) in vitro. With the use of valves and timers, banked human blood and saline from refrigerated reservoirs were pumped into and flushed out of the system every 7 d. During this rotational interval, bloodmeals were provided to head lice continuously…through a stretched Nescofilm-silicone sandwich membrane.”
This might not seem like a big deal, but in order to research an insect, you need a reliable, uniform supply of it. Experimenting on insects of random ages or nutritional status makes it hard to say whether or not your treatment was the reason for changes seen.
So, entomologists have invented a variety of clever ways to feed and rear lice, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and a whole host of other blood-feeding insects in order to study them. One common way to rear lice is to strap them to your leg in a container.
Not many people will volunteer to host your research colony of head lice or the other colonies of lice you might have around the lab. Obviously, the requirement that you “feed your own pets” may also be an issue when trying to attract bright young graduate students and post-docs to your research lab.
Fortunately, it appears the inventive authors of this paper had some success, although the survival rate was probably not as high as they had hoped. It did, however, improve on an earlier system. And, bonus:
“Body lice (Pediculus humanus L.) and bed bugs (Cimex lectularius [L.]) also completed most of their life cycle on this apparatus.”
Those are definitely animals I’d rather not carry around in a tube on my leg so they can feed, thanks. Hopefully they will continue to refine their system in the future, and improve the survival rates.
The full citation is:
M. Takano-Lee, R. K. Velten, J. D. Edman, B. A. Mullens, and J. M. Clark. 2003. An Automated Feeding Apparatus for In Vitro Maintenance of the Human Head Louse, Pediculus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae). J. Medical Entomology 40(6): 795-799.
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:
Gitzin-Adiram said she spent weeks exploring the gallery’s theme of “hosting,” turning to philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and even the Bible for inspiration. She received proposals from around the world but was won over by the lice.
“The idea is that we live in the museum as their guests, and at the same time we are hosting lice on our heads,” said artist Vincent Grunwald, 23, wearing a plastic shower cap to prevent the lice from spreading.
… The group acknowledged that living with lice was uncomfortable, but said it was worth it for the sake of art.
Cripes. These folks are hosting regular head lice, BTW.
Waggle of the antennae to Neatorama for finding this.
There actually is a really interesting bit of history to be found in the three lice that live on humans (head lice, body lice, and pubic lice). An excerpt from a story covering the genetic relationships between human lice and other primate lice:
“Lice are intimately adapted to their hosts and cannot long survive away from the body’s blood and warmth. If their host evolves into two species, the lice will do likewise. So biologists have long been puzzled over the fact that the human head louse is a sister species to the chimpanzee louse, but the pubic louse is closely related to the gorilla louse.”
A fascinating article about nakedness, clothes, evolution, and possible interspecies sex.
One of the great joys (and curses) of blogging is the random email. I think after this, I have now officially heard it all:
“I have a question for the entimoligist. [sic] I’m hoping you could give me some advice. My boyfriend is all excited about the love lice, pubic hair animal things and wants us to get them. I’m not sure this is such a good idea. He says these are specially bred and they’re not the same kind as homeless people’s lice. He says these are bigger and tame. I’d never heard of this before, but he and his buddies are all into it. “
And she then referred me to this website: LoveBugz.net: “The FanSite of the Lousing Lifestyle.” From their FAQ page:
The dealio is special bred pubic crab louses from Japan (not the same as homeless people’s variety of lice exactly). First, they DON’T BITE, they just live off dead skin cells and such in your bush. Really, you’re cleaner with them there than without them.
Second, these babies are HUGE!!! Well, huge compared to regular lice. And they just live happily in your underwear. It’s so COOL! They grow, and have families.
You can feel em living and crawling around. It’s like having personal Sea monkeys in your pants.
Egad. I immediately thought that this was a spoof site, but it is a spoof someone is investing a lot of time and energy into. (I especially like the username “Lice Lice Baby!”).
Given the infinite ability of humans to get off on just about anything, I’ll grant that someone could fetishize having pubic lice (Phthirus pubis for those who want the taxonomic details). And it does have it’s own fetish name: pthirophilia. Certainly someone believes this fad is real enough to ask for an interview on Craig’s list.
However, whether it is real or not, the site is spreading a great deal of misinformation.
First, the likelihood that “pet” crab lice could be bred to not bite and live off dead skin cells is nill.
To put it more bluntly, It’s. Total. Bull. Shit.
These animals have spent millions of years feeding on blood through your skin–they have no way to suddenly start munching skin cells.
A crab louse infestation is also not pleasant–from Medline:
“The presence of pubic lice is heralded by moderate to severe itching in the area covered by pubic hair….Because the crab louse requires human blood to survive, it buries its head inside a pubic hair follicle. It excretes a substance into the skin that causes the itching.
Sometimes the bite can cause an inflammatory skin reaction that is bluish gray in color. Although the lice do not cause a rash, the constant scratching and digging can cause the skin to become raw, and secondary infections may develop.”
Second, the idea that these are your crabs, and that having them is low risk to anyone else, is also not correct. A scientific study from 1983 suggests that crab lice are quite active, and move about between subjects more than previously believed. While it is rare for transmission to occur, trying on bathing suits and underwear is a known risk for transmission of crab lice, as is sharing bedding or clothing with an infected person. Crabs can survive for up to 2 days off their host.
Lastly, the idea promoted on LoveBugz that you can “easily” get rid of crabs is not correct. Additionally, the LoveBugz site suggests using Kerosene, which is about the worst thing you can possibly do (especially if you have open sores from the bites!).
As anyone who’s tried to get rid of head lice can tell you, just one treatment isn’t always enough. Detailed instructions on how to safely get rid of pubic lice are here. Note that crab lice can also occur in the eyebrows and armpits; make sure you wash everything.
So, if the goal of the email was to get me to link to the LoveBugz site, I guess they succeeded–but that site is total BS.
But Wait! There’s more!