The parasitic sucking lice of primates are known to have undergone at least 25 million years of coevolution with their hosts. For example, chimpanzee lice and human head/body lice last shared a common ancestor roughly six million years ago, a divergence that is contemporaneous with their hosts. In an assemblage where lice are often highly host specific, humans host two different genera of lice, one that is shared with chimpanzees and another that is shared with gorillas. In this study, we reconstruct the evolutionary history of primate lice and infer the historical events that explain the current distribution of these lice on their primate hosts.
Phylogenetic and cophylogenetic analyses suggest that the louse genera Pediculus and Pthirus are each monophyletic, and are sister taxa to one another. The age of the most recent common ancestor of the two Pediculus species studied matches the age predicted by host divergence (ca. 6 million years), whereas the age of the ancestor of Pthirus does not. The two species of Pthirus (Pthirus gorillae and Pthirus pubis) last shared a common ancestor ca. 3–4 million years ago, which is considerably younger than the divergence between their hosts (gorillas and humans, respectively), of approximately 7 million years ago.
Reconciliation analysis determines that there are two alternative explanations that account for the current distribution of anthropoid primate lice. The more parsimonious of the two solutions suggests that a Pthirus species switched from gorillas to humans. This analysis assumes that the divergence between Pediculus and Pthirus was contemporaneous with the split (i.e., a node of cospeciation) between gorillas and the lineage leading to chimpanzees and humans. Divergence date estimates, however, show that the nodes in the host and parasite trees are not contemporaneous. Rather, the shared coevolutionary history of the anthropoid primates and their lice contains a mixture of evolutionary events including cospeciation, parasite duplication, parasite extinction, and host switching. Based on these data, the coevolutionary history of primates and their lice has been anything but parsimonious.