Researcher Daniel Gustafsson has studied chewing lice on sandpipers around the world and investigated how host birds’ migration patterns affect lice distribution and relatedness.

With no wings and very small eyes, chewing lice are, by and large, helpless away from their host.

Daniel Gustafsson has studied species of chewing lice that live on the birds’ wings and compared them with species that live on their body feathers.

– Given that chewing lice are almost totally dependent on direct contact between two birds to spread, lice that sit on birds’ wings should find it easier to use occasional contact between two hosts to spread than those that sit closer to birds’ bodies, says Daniel Gustafsson.

Unexpected results
But contrary to expectation, it would appear that body lice can spread more easily than wing lice, even though they live on parts of their host that less frequently come into contact with other birds.

– This is surprising as body lice should be more limited to one particular species of bird,” says Daniel Gustafsson. “The real opportunities for spreading should be between parents and their offspring in the nest, or between adult birds during pairing.

Genetic and morphological data from two different genera show complicated patterns.

– Wing lice from small bird host species are spread over more host species than those that live as parasites on larger bird host species, says Daniel Gustafsson.

Genetically almost identical
Another unexpected result is that the body lice on almost all sandpipers worldwide, with the exception of dunlins and ruffs, are genetically almost identical.

-Sandpipers are incredibly mobile, says Daniel Gustafsson. They breed around the North Pole but fly to the tropics during the Arctic winter, following specific migration routes known as flyways.

He has studied sandpipers in Sweden, Japan, Australia and Canada.

When sandpipers migrate they do so in enormous flocks, often tens of thousands strong and containing different species. These winter flocks should offer excellent opportunities for the lice to spread as the birds often stand in tight groups at high water and at night.

– But it would appear that several factors other than geography play a role, including the size of the host bird,” explains Daniel Gustafsson.
Specific rest and wintering environments probably play a role too as some of the host birds that generally head for fresh water during the winter carry species of wing lice that differ from those that live on birds that head for the seashore.

Common on mammals
Some chewing lice have also been found hitch-hiking on louse flies, which are related to deer flies. In such cases they attach themselves to the louse flies’ legs and abdomen.

Other chewing lice have been seen to jump between host ducks on the surface of the water.

Chewing lice are common in birds and most groups of mammals. There are two species that live on humans: pubic lice and head lice.

Thesis title: Tales of the Flying Earth: The Effect of Host Flyways on the Phylogeny of Shorebird Lice

Link to thesis:

Supervisor: Urban Olsson, Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg

Daniel Gustafsson, Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, tel: +46 (0)31 786 3666, mobile: +46 (0)761 166 349, e-mail: