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louse

louse, common name for members of either of two distinct orders of wingless, parasitic, disease-carrying insects. Lice of both groups are small and flattened with short legs adapted for clinging to the host.

The sucking lice, of the order Anoplura, are external parasites of humans and other mammals, feeding on blood by means of their piercing-and-sucking mouthparts. The group includes the body lice and head lice, considered varieties of the same species, Pediculus humanus, and the crab, or pubic, louse, Phthirus pubis, named for its crablike appearance. A female sucking louse lays about 300 eggs, or nits, in her lifetime, cementing them to body hairs and underclothing. The larva resembles the adult; the life cycle takes about 16 days. Sucking lice infestations are common in crowded living conditions and where clothing is not changed or washed frequently. Body lice may transmit rickettsial diseases (see rickettsia) and bacterial infections such as relapsing fever; infection results from scratching the crushed louse or its feces into the skin.

The chewing, or biting, lice, of the order Mallophaga, have chewing mouthparts and feed on hair, skin, or feather fragments of the host. They attack birds, rodents, and domesticated animals. Although they do not actually puncture the skin, and thus are scavengers and not true parasites, they often multiply so rapidly that they irritate, weaken, and may even kill the host. The chicken louse, Menopon pallidum, if left uncontrolled, can be a major problem in poultry production. Chewing lice may produce 6 to 12 generations annually. The eggs hatch into rapidly developing young in which metamorphosis is incomplete, as in many parasites.

The book louse is a tiny, wingless, cosmopolitan insect that damages books by feeding on glue, paste, and paper. It resembles lice but is not related, belonging to the order Psocoptera. The aphid is sometimes called plant louse.

Lice are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, orders Anoplura and Mallophaga.

See bulletins of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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See more Encyclopedia articles on: Zoology: Invertebrates


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