Published: June 23, 2011

Walking through the public museum (chewing lice and sucking lice)

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

One thing about walking through the public exhibit areas is that you never know what you will overhear.

One thing about walking through the public exhibit areas is that you never know what you will overhear.  OK, sometimes you hear things you don’t want to hear, but just as often, good things get your attention.  I am not making up what I heard the other day on the way into the Fish Division. From behind me, I heard a guy say “look, chewing lice and sucking lice!”  Not words you hear typically (and certainly not with a hint of enthusiasm), but they made me smile, I knew there was an exhibit case that included insects in the hallway behind me.  He was with his family and he was looking at the case.  It does have lice displayed in it.  To me, this event illustrates what makes the public areas of our museum special.  Where is the nearest other institution to us where one can see sucking lice and chewing lice displayed? We have the real thing.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, we are actively studying and collecting these lice, particularly the ones that parasitize birds.  Unfortunately, the exhibit case is an old one that probably has not been updated in more than 50 years, so while I’m glad it is still on display, I doubt the man realized that we have this expertise and research unless he spent some time on the web or watched the displays of ongoing research projects in the DNA Discovery Center/Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution.  This just illustrates how much more we can do to bring biodiversity and our research to the public.

Even though I work on birds, I hope we continue to develop new approaches to educate people about all animals, including chewing lice and sucking lice. The success of The Romance of Antsexhibit in the Rice Gallery illustrates one novel and successful approach to a group of animals that folks generally take for granted, but where we have substantial research and knowledge. This is something that makes this museum unique and it is our responsibility to both people and the amazing biodiversity with which we share the planet to provide access to it.

This is a large Amblyceran chewing louse of the genus Laemobothrium, which only occurs on Hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin).  I took this photo while Jason Weckstein was working on it during our expedition along the Rio Jupurá in Brazil in 2007.

I could not resist including this photo also.  It shows how small these lice usually are.  These individuals, mounted on slides as part of the collections, are special.  They are type specimens (which means they are the individuals used to describe these species for the first time) of two recently described species of Myrsidea chewing lice based on work by Kevin Johnson and Roger Price published in 2006.  The host is an endemic Malagasy songbird call Long-billed Tetraka (Bernieria madgascariensis).  They were named after me and Steve Goodman which is quite an honor.  How can you get two species of lice on one species of bird?  This question is being answered by Nick Block, a graduate student doing his dissertation with Shannon Hackett.  Nick's work has uncovered a great evolutionary story about these lice and the birds that host them.  But it is his story to tell.

Price, R. D. and K. P. Johnson.  2006.  Four new species of Myrsideachewing lice (Phthiraptera: Menoponidae) from Malagasy warblers (Passeriformes).  Zootaxa 1297:47-55.

John Bates
Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences

Contact Information

The tropics harbor the highest species diversity on the planet.  I am most intrigued by evolution at the tips of the tree of life.  My students and I study genetic structure in tropical birds and other organisms to address how this diversity evolved and how it continues to evolve as climates change and humans continue to alter landscapes.

We study comparative genetic structure and evolution primarily in the Afrotropics, the Neotropics, and the Asian tropics.  I am an ornithologist, but students working with me and my wife Shannon Hackett and other museum curators also have studied amphibians and small mammals (bats and rodents) and more recently internal, external and blood parasites (e.g., Lutz et al. 2015, Block et al. 2015, Patitucci et al. 2016).  Research in the our lab has involved gathering and interpreting genetic data in both phylogeographic and phylogenetic frameworks. Phylogenetic work on Neotropical birds has focused on rates of diversification and comparative biogeography (Tello and Bates 2007, Pantané et al 2009, Patel et al. 2011, Lutz et al. 2013, Dantas et al. 2015).  Phylogeographic work has sought to understand comparative patterns of divergence at level of population and species across different biomes (Bates et al 2003, Bates et al. 2004, Bowie et al. 2006, I. Caballero dissertation research, Block et al. 2015, Winger and Bates 2015, Lawson et al. 2015).  We also have used genetic data to better understand evolutionary patterns in relation to climate change across landscapes (e.g., Carnaval and Bates 2007) that include the Albertine Rift (through our MacArthur Grants, e.g., Voelker et al. 2010, Engel et al. 2014), the Eastern Arc Mountains (Lawson dissertation research, Lawson et al. 2015), the Philippines (T. Roberts and S. Weyandt dissertation research) and South America, particularly the Amazon (Savit dissertation research, Savit and Bates 2015, Figueiredo et al. 2013), and we are entering into the genomic realm focusing initially on Andean (Winger et al. 2015) and Amazonian birds (through our NSF Dimensions of Diversity grant). Shane DuBay is doing his dissertation research in the Himalayas on physiological plasticity in Tarsiger Bush Robins.  Nick Crouch, who I co-advise at U. Illinois, Chicago with Roberta Mason-Gamer, is studying specialization in birds from a modern phylogenetic perspective.  We seek to create a broader understanding of diversification in the tropics from a comparative biogeographic framework (Silva and Bates 2002, Kahindo et al, 2007, Bates et al. 2008, Antonelli et al. 2009).  João Capurucho (U. Illinois, Chicago, co-advised with Mary Ashley)  is studying phlylogeography of Amazonian white sand specialist birds and Natalia Piland (Committee on Evolutionary Biology, U. Chicago) is studying the impact of urbanization on Neotropical birds.  New graduate student Valentina Gomez Bahamon (U. Illinois, Chicago) is also working Boris Igic and me, after doing her Master Degree in her native Colombia on genomics and the evolution of migrating Fork-tailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus savana).  Jacob Cooper (Committee on Evolutionary Biology, U. Chicago) is studying the diversification of birds in Afromonte forests

Josh Engel and I are working up multi-species phylogeographic studies of birds across the Albertine Rift, based the Bird Division's long term research throughout the region.  We are working up similar data sets for Malawian birds.  Our current NSF Dimensions of Diversity grant on the assembly of the Amazonian biota and our NSF grant to survey birds and their parasites across the southern Amazon are generating genomic data for analysis in collaboration with paleoecologists, climatologists, geologists, and remote sensing experts from the U.S. and Brazil.  These large collaborative projects are providing new perspectives on the history of Amazonia.