Anoplura: Life Cycle & Habitat

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Chances are you've heard of Anoplura, even if you don't recognize the name. Get ready to itch and squirm as we learn all about this suborder, which includes head lice. We will go over the life cycle and habitat of these pesky insects.

Anoplura Defined

Your head is really itchy and tickly. You notice red bumps on your head and neck. Upon closer inspection you see some white clumps in your hair. Is it dandruff? A rash? I have bad news for you. It's neither of those things. You, my friend, have lice. Specifically you have sucking lice, which belong to Anoplura, a suborder containing 500 species of lice. The name 'Anoplura' means 'unarmed tail' in reference to this group missing cerci (which are appendages at the back of some insects).

Many insects, like the ones in the image, have cerci, or appendages on their back ends. Anoplura do not have cerci, and the name Anoplura means unarmed tail as a result of the missing cerci
cerci image

A louse (which is the singular for lice) is a tiny, wingless insect that is parasitic (meaning it benefits at the expense of another). There are different groups of lice, and the Anoplura group, as was mentioned a moment ago, is known as the sucking lice.

There are also biting and chewing lice that look a little different and have different hosts compared to the sucking lice. For example, many species of the biting/chewing variety focus on birds, whereas the sucking lice stick to mammals and include the species that is currently having a grand old time on your head.

A louse that lives on humans
human head louse

Life Cycle

Let's check out the life cycle of sucking lice. Remember, there are 500 species of lice within the Anoplura group, so let's hone in on the ones that are crawling on your head, which are aptly named head lice, or Pediculus humanus capitis if you're into fancy scientific names.

Let's begin with the egg, which is often referred to as a nit, and is laid near the scalp, at the base of a hair shaft. Nits look a lot like dandruff, and are a yellow or white color. The nits remains attached to the shaft through a cement-like material and hatch after 6 to 9 days.

After the eggs hatch, the lice are called nymphs, and look just like miniature adults. Nymphs will molt, or shed their skin as they grow, three times before they become an adult. They will drink the blood from their human host using their curved teeth to penetrate the skin and then suck your blood two times a day. After about a week, the nymphs reach adult-size.

Once the louse is a mature adult, the females will lay 10 eggs a day (or about 60 during her life). Lice are small and adults are only about the size of a sesame seed (that's why it's so hard to find them in your hair)! The adults will continue to feast on your blood, until they die (lice typically live around 30 days).

Overview of lice life cycle. Note, the sub-species is different, but this type of lice also impacts humans and is known as body lice.
head lice life cycle

Habitat

So far we know that one of the members of the suborder Anoplura is the head louse, and it lives on the human head, but what about the other 499-ish species? As mentioned earlier, this suborder sticks to mammals and can infect 18 to 20% of all mammal species. This group is well suited to mammals. For example, members of Anoplura have specialized claws that help them grasp mammalian hair as well as mouthparts that help them bite and obtain blood.

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