Objective: Conventional wisdom suggests that parasites evolve increased host specialization over time. Host specificity, which describes the number of host species parasitized, is one aspect of host specialization. Recent studies of vertebrate parasites indicate that highly host-specific parasite lineages are not, in fact, evolutionary dead ends; host generalists can evolve from host specialists.
Methods: Using phylogenetic reconstruction methods, we evaluate these patterns in the body lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera) of pigeons and doves, which are permanent ectoparasites that complete their entire life cycle on the body of the host.
Results: We find that species of body lice that parasitize more than one species of host (generalists) are invariably derived from lice parasitizing only one species of host (specialists). A previous study of the wing lice of pigeons and doves also found that generalists were derived from specialists, and that these changes were correlated with the presence of a potentially competing species of wing louse on the same host. For body lice we did not find such a correlation with competition. Instead, the evolution of host generalists in body lice was correlated with host ecology. When we compared body lice that parasitize terrestrial versus arboreal hosts, we found that the evolution of host generalists was associated with terrestrial hosts. In contrast, wing lice showed no correlation between the evolution of generalists and host ecology.
Conclusion: The correlation in body lice suggests that dispersal between host species may occur via the ground. This, in turn, suggests that body lice may fall to the ground more often than wing lice. To test this hypothesis, we conducted an experiment to compare the rate at which body and wing lice are dislodged from the bodies of preening pigeons. Interestingly, our results showed that body lice are dislodged four times more often than wing lice. Therefore, species of terrestrial doves are far more likely to encounter body lice than wing lice on the ground.