Scratching an ancient itch: an Eocene bird louse fossil

T. Wappler, V. S. Smith, R. C. Dalgleish

Abstract

Out of the 30 extant orders of insects, all but one, the parasitic lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera), have a confirmed fossil record. Here, we report the discovery of what appears to be the first bird louse fossil: an exceptionally well–preserved specimen collected from the crater of the Eckfeld maar near Manderscheid, Germany. The 44–million–year–old specimen shows close phylogenetic affinities with modern feather louse ectoparasites of aquatic birds. Preservation of feather remnants in the specimen's foregut confirms its association as a bird ectoparasite. Based on a phylogenetic analysis of the specimen and palaeoecological data, we suggest that this louse was the parasite of a large ancestor to modern Anseriformes (swans, geese and ducks) or Charadriiformes (shorebirds). The crown group position of this fossil in the phylogeny of lice confirms the group's long coevolutionary history with birds and points to an early origin for lice, perhaps inherited from early–feathered theropod dinosaurs.