What's in a name: The taxonomic status of human head and body lice

  • Light J
  • Toups M
  • Reed D
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Human head lice (Anoplura: Pediculidae: Pediculus) are pandemic, parasitizing countless school children worldwide due to the evolution of insecticide resistance, and human body (clothing) lice are responsible for the deaths of millions as a result of vectoring several deadly bacterial pathogens. Despite the obvious impact these lice have had on their human hosts, it is unclear whether head and body lice represent two morphological forms of a single species or two distinct species. To assess the taxonomic status of head and body lice, we provide a synthesis of publicly available molecular data in GenBank, and we compare phylogenetic and population genetic methods using the most diverse geographic and molecular sampling presently available. Our analyses find reticulated networks, gene flow, and a lack of reciprocal monophyly, all of which indicate that head and body lice do not represent genetically distinct evolutionary units. Based on these findings, as well as inconsistencies of morphological, behavioral, and ecological variability between head and body lice, we contend that no known species concept would recognize these louse morphotypes as separate species. We recommend recognizing head and body lice as morphotypes of a single species, Pediculus humanus, until compelling new data and analyses (preferably analyses of fast evolving nuclear markers in a coalescent framework) indicate otherwise. © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Coalescent
  • Pediculus
  • Phylogenetics
  • Population genetics
  • Statistical parsimony
  • Systematics
  • Taxonomy

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  • Jessica E. Light

  • Melissa A. Toups

  • David L. Reed

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