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Pubic Hair Provides Evolutionary Home For Gorilla Lice
ScienceDaily (Feb. 12, 2009) — There are two species of lice that infest 
humans: pubic lice, Pthirus
pubis, and human head and body lice, Pediculus humanus. A new article
suggests one explanation for the separation of the two species.
In the article, Robert Weiss from University College London
describes how he was struck by inspiration while pondering the question
of why lice would separate into two groups when our ancestors are quite
uniformly hairy, "I was having difficulty envisioning a clear
separation of habitats between the groin and other parts of our ancient
common ancestor. My 'eureka moment' came, appropriately enough, in the
shower: although naked apes have pubic hair, surely our hairy cousins
Pthirus pubis, popularly known as crabs, evolved from the
structurally similar gorilla louse, Pthirus gorillae. Interestingly
however, while genetic analysis carried out by David Reed at the
University of Florida indicates that this split occurred around 3.3
million years ago, humans are believed to have diverged from gorillas
much earlier - at least 7 million years ago - suggesting that early
humans somehow caught pubic lice from their gorilla cousins. Happily,
this may not be as sordid as it sounds.
According to Weiss, "Before one conjures up a King Kong scenario, it
should be noted that predators can pick up parasites from their prey.
The close contact involved in human ancestors butchering gorillas could
have enabled Pthirus to jump hosts, rather as bushmeat slaughter
practices allowed HIV to invade humans from chimpanzees in modern
So, while head lice may be viewed as a 'family heirloom', inherited
down the generations as humans have evolved, pubic lice may well be a
recent and slightly unwelcome gift from the more hirsute branch of our
evolutionary family.
Journal reference:
        1. Weiss et al. Apes, lice and prehistory. Journal of Biology, 2009; 8 
(2): 20 DOI: 10.1186/jbiol114
Adapted from materials provided by BioMed Central, via EurekAlert!, a service 
of AAAS.
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