Whats the difference between head lice and body lice?

Updated: May 2, 2018

Nearly all mammals and avians carry some type of lice, however humans are the only ones to carry three types of lice. All these lice are specific to humans and cannot be transferred to any other animals, just as humans cannot host lice from other animals.


The three classes of lice do vary in size and shape with the head louse being slightly smaller than body lice and appearing darker in colour. On the whole, all three types of lice share very similar characteristics, the main difference of course is that head lice do not cause diseases and live on the host, whereas the body louse will use clothing to live in and can pass on diseases. The body louse feeds on human and skin and the head louse feeds on human blood from the scalp, neck and shoulders.


It is theorized that the body louse diverged from the head louse, to become it's own species. Clearly the theory is that when humans started wearing clothes the body louse would have diverged and started existing in clothes.


The researchers found that the human head louse was more genetically diverse than its cousin, the body louse – proving that the head louse was the ancestral species.


In conclusion, the genetic and archaeological data both converge on the conclusion that the chimp louse and orangutan louse and the human head louse are close cousins that must have originated from a common ancestor. The human head louse was confined to one relatively smaller habitat (the scalp), when ancestral humans lost a significant amount of body hair about 1.2 million years ago. Then, sometime between 70,000 and 170,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans started stitching and wearing clothes and the lice could now colonise them. Indeed, it is quite possible that human lice spread across the globe along with their humans.


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