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

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 (see Assistant Curator of Insects, Corrie Moreau).  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.