American Oceans

Whales Get Giant Lice and It’s Terrifying

Whale lice are a type of crustacean ectoparasite that live on the skin of some species of cetaceans. These small, grayish-white creatures are one of the world’s most unique and specialized parasites, having evolved to live exclusively on whales. Despite their name, whale lice are not true lice, but are instead members of the amphipod family Cyamidae.

lice infestation on a whale

Whale lice are found on a variety of whale species, including humpback, minke, and right whales. They spend their entire life cycle on their host, feeding on the outer surface of the whale’s skin. While their presence generally does not cause harm to the host, heavy infestations of whale lice can cause skin irritation and even lead to infections. Despite this, whale lice are not considered a major threat to whale populations.

Understanding Whale Lice

a whale in the ocean

Whale lice, also known as cyamids, are crustaceans that are commonly found on the skin of whales. They are ectoparasites, which means that they live on the outside of the whale’s body and feed on its skin and mucus. There are two species of whale lice that are commonly found on whales: Cyamus boopis and Cyamus scammoni.

Whale lice belong to the family Cyamidae, which is a group of crustaceans that are closely related to amphipods. They are small, flattened crustaceans that have a hard exoskeleton and are typically less than one centimeter in length. They are part of the order Amphipoda, which is a group of small, shrimp-like crustaceans that are found in both marine and freshwater environments.

Whale lice are external parasites that attach themselves to the skin of whales. They are not harmful to the whale, but they can cause irritation and discomfort. They are also known to cause skin lesions and infections in some cases. Whale lice are usually found in large numbers on the skin of whales, particularly in areas where the skin is thinner and more exposed, such as around the eyes, mouth, and genital area.

Whale lice are peracarida, which is a subclass of malacostraca that includes many other types of crustaceans. They are external parasites that are adapted to live on the skin of their host. They have a flattened body that allows them to move easily over the skin of the whale, and they have specialized mouthparts that are adapted for feeding on skin and mucus.

Whale Lice and Their Hosts

a whale with lice

Whale lice are parasitic crustaceans that live on the skin of marine mammals, particularly cetaceans. They are often found in large numbers on their hosts, especially in species that live on only one whale.

Whales as Hosts

Baleen whales, toothed whales, and odontocetes are known to host whale lice. Some species of whale lice, such as Cyamus boopis, are specific to certain species of whales, such as humpback whales and right whales.

Other Marine Mammal Hosts

Whale lice have also been found on other marine mammals, such as gray whales, porpoises, dolphins, and pilot whales.

Host Specificity

Whale lice exhibit a high degree of host specificity, meaning that they are adapted to live on certain species of whales and may not be able to survive on other hosts. This specificity is thought to be related to the structure of the genital slit and folds of their hosts.

Ecology of Whale Lice

The distribution and abundance of whale lice is influenced by a variety of ecological factors, including season, home range, and geographical region. For example, the prevalence of whale lice on humpback whales varies depending on their migratory routes.

Physical Characteristics of Whale Lice

close up of whale lice

Whale lice, also known as cyamids, are small crustaceans that parasitize whales. They have a flattened body shape that allows them to move easily through the thick layer of blubber on the whale’s skin.

Appearance of Whale Lice

Whale lice are visible to the naked eye and can be up to 2 centimeters in length. They have a hard exoskeleton that protects their body and ventral spines that help them cling onto the whale’s skin. Whale lice have two small eyes that are not very functional, as they live in dark and murky waters.

Behavior of Whale Lice

Whale lice spend their entire lives on the whale’s skin, feeding on the dead skin cells and other debris that accumulates there. They move by swimming, but they can also crawl along the whale’s skin using their ventral spines. When they encounter other whale lice, they engage in fights to establish dominance.

Life Cycle of Whale Lice

Whale lice have a complex life cycle that involves both adults and young. The adults mate and lay eggs on the whale’s skin, which hatch into larvae. The larvae then molt several times before reaching adulthood. The entire life cycle can take several months to complete.

Impact of Whale Lice on Hosts

a whale's taiul with sea lice

Whale lice, also known as cyamids, are a type of crustacean that live on the skin of whales. While they do not pose a significant threat to the overall health of their hosts, they can have some effects on the skin and behavior of the whales.

Minor Skin Damage

Whale lice feed on the skin of their hosts, which can cause minor skin damage such as flaking skin and skin folds. However, this damage is generally not serious and does not cause any significant harm to the whale.

More Serious Effects

In some cases, whale lice can cause more serious effects on their hosts. For example, they can create wounds on the skin of the whale, which can become infected and cause illness or injury. Additionally, if the whale has any existing skin lesions, the whale lice can exacerbate these conditions and cause further pathology.

Beneficial Effects

While whale lice are generally seen as a nuisance to their hosts, there are some potential beneficial effects of having them. For example, whale lice can serve as a food source for other marine animals such as barnacles and algae. Additionally, researchers have used whale lice to track the movements of whales, as the lice are host-specific and can provide information about the migratory routes of their hosts.

Research and Studies on Whale Lice

a whale breaching

Whale lice, also known as cyamids, are parasitic crustaceans that inhabit the skin and blubber of cetaceans. Over the years, researchers have conducted various studies to better understand the genetic, morphological, prevalence, and diversity aspects of whale lice.

Genetic Analyses

Genetic analyses have been instrumental in understanding the evolution and phylogenetic relationships of whale lice. Researchers have used mdNA COI sequences to investigate the genetic structure and diversity of various species of whale lice. For instance, a study by Cárdenas-Alayza et al. (2019) used molecular markers to examine the population structure of cyamids from different host species. The results revealed that cyamids have a high degree of host specificity, which is likely due to the coevolutionary history of the parasites and their hosts.

Morphological Investigations

Morphological investigations have provided insights into the taxonomy, morphology, and anatomy of whale lice. Researchers have used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and light microscopy to study the external and internal structures of cyamids. For example, a study by Berta et al. (2013) used SEM to examine the morphology of cyamids from different cetacean species. The results showed that cyamids have distinct morphological features that are specific to their host species.

Prevalence Studies

Prevalence studies have been conducted to determine the occurrence and distribution of whale lice on different cetacean species. Researchers have used stranded and harvested animals to examine the prevalence of cyamids. For instance, a study by Lehnert et al. (2021) investigated the prevalence of whale lice on stranded harbor porpoises from the Dutch and German North Sea. The results showed that cyamids were present on all examined individuals, with a prevalence of 100%.

Diversity Studies

Diversity studies have focused on examining the species richness and diversity of whale lice. Researchers have used morphological and molecular methods to identify and classify cyamids. For example, a study by Crespo et al. (2019) used a combination of morphological and molecular data to identify and describe a new species of cyamid from a stranded southern right whale. The results showed that the new species had distinct morphological and genetic characteristics that differentiated it from other known cyamid species.

Whale Lice Species

a whale breaching

Whale lice, also known as cyamids, are parasitic crustaceans that live on the skin of whales. There are only 23 known species of whale lice, all of which belong to the family Cyamidae. In this section, we will discuss three species of whale lice: Cyamus boopis, Isocyamus delphinii, and other species.

Cyamus Boopis

Cyamus boopis is a species of whale louse that is host-specific to humpback whales. It has a flattened body and is about the size of a grain of rice. Cyamus boopis feeds on the skin of humpback whales and can cause irritation and inflammation. Researchers have suggested that the genetic diversity of Cyamus boopis populations can be used to track the migratory routes of humpback whales.

Isocyamus Delphinii

Isocyamus delphinii is a species of whale louse that is found on various species of dolphins. It has a cylindrical body and is about the size of a matchstick. Isocyamus delphinii feeds on the skin of dolphins and can cause irritation and inflammation. This species of whale louse has been found on dolphins in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea.

Other Species

In addition to Cyamus boopis and Isocyamus delphinii, there are several other species of whale lice. One such species is Isocyamus deltobranchium, which is found on various species of toothed whales. Another species is Cyamus kessleri, which is found on gray whales. All species of whale lice belong to the genus Cyamus and the family Cyamidae.

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