I also told them that the best blog posts from the class will be selected for re-posting (with their permission) here on the Parasite of the Day blog. I am pleased to be presenting these posts from the ZOOL329/529 class of 2013. To kick things off, here's a post by Bianca Boss-Bishop on a paper published in 1999 on toxic birds and their lice.
|Photo by John Dumbacher from |
the California Academy of Sciences
Yes, toxic birds. The six species of Pitohui, which are endemic to New Guinea have been found to carry toxin in their skin and plumage. These are the same potent toxins as those found in the skin of poison dart frogs (Phyllobates spp.) and are some of the most toxic natural substances known. The toxin present in the Pitohui is known as homobatrachotoxin and like all batrachotoxins is a neurotoxic steroidal alkaloid capable of depolarising nerve and muscle cell membranes. The level of toxins present in Pitohui tissue varies between species and geographic location. The most toxic species is the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous), from which merely handling an individual can cause numbness, sneezing, and irritation of the eyes and sensitive mucous membranes. It has been hypothesised that the high proportions of toxin present in the Pitohui skin and feathers could provide the bird with a barrier from ectoparasites that live and feed on skin, feathers and subdermal blood supplies.
|SEM photograph from phthiraptera.info|
Dumbacher also determined that the natural levels of homobatrachotoxin in Pitohui feathers greatly increased louse mortality. The results of the lifespan experiments showed that the mean lifespan of lice exposed to feathers of either high or low level toxicity was half that of those on nontoxic feathers. Interestingly, the mean lifespan of the lice on the toxic feathers was similar even though the toxin levels in P. ferrugineus are ten times lower than P. dichrous. Therefore, Pitohui feathers with lower toxin levels may not have been potent enough to repel lice during the choice experiments but were as effective in increasing louse mortality as the highly toxic feathers. Increased mortality in lice could have many benefits for the host. Less time spent on the host will reduce the negative effect of each individual louse.
One observation from the study was that non-toxic feathers showed obvious damage from lice feeding. This may be due to the extended life span offering additional feeding time, or the lice simply find nontoxic feathers more palatable. Further investigations may provide insight into additional benefits, for example whether or not the potent toxin is able to reduce louse fecundity. If mating in lice is decreased then subsequent generations of lice are also reduced. Smaller populations would cause less irritation to the host and also be less visible to potential mates. Additionally, less ectoparasites would reduce time spent mechanically removing them and more time to invest in other activities. The results of Dumbacher's study suggest that the naturally occurring homobatrachotoxin found in the skin and feathers of the Pitohui repels and kills lice. The presence of a powerful toxin in skin and feathers has the potential to create a formidable barrier and protect the bird against infestation from ectoparasites.
Dumbacher, J. P. (1999). Evolution of toxicity in Pitohuis: I. effects of homobatrachotoxin on chewing lice (order: Phthiraptera). The Auk, 116: 957-963.
This post was written by Bianca Boss-Bishop