Episode 340: Whale Lice and Sea Lice

Thanks to Eilee for suggesting the sea louse this week!

Further reading:

Secrets of the Whale Riders: Crablike ‘Whale Lice’ Show How Endangered Cetaceans Evolved

Parasite of the Day: Neocyamus physeteris

A whale louse [By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19259257]:

The salmon sea louse [By Thomas Bjørkan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7524020]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s now officially August, so we’re officially kicking off Invertebrate August with two invertebrates with the word louse in their names, even though neither of them are technically lice. Thanks to Eilee for suggesting sea lice, and thanks to our patrons because I used some information from an old Patreon episode for the first part of this episode.

That would be the whale louse. The whale louse isn’t actually a louse, although it is a parasite. Lice are insects adapted for a parasitic lifestyle on the bodies of their hosts, but whale lice are crustaceans—specifically, amphipods specialized to live on whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

There are many species of whale louse, with some only living on a particular species of whale. In the case of the sperm whale, one species of whale louse lives on the male sperm whale while a totally different species of whale louse lives on the female sperm whale and on calves. This was a fact I found on Wikipedia and included in the Patreon episode, but at the time I couldn’t find out more. It’s puzzled me ever since, which is one of the reasons I wanted to revisit this topic. I couldn’t figure out how the male calves ended up with male sperm whale lice, and I couldn’t figure out why males and females would have different species of lice. I’m happy to report that I now know the answers to both questions, or at least I can report what experts hypothesize.

Male sperm whales spend more time in polar waters while females spend more time in warmer waters to raise their calves. Sperm whales are actually host to three different whale lice species, but one species prefers colder water and is much more likely to live on males, while another species prefers warmer water and is much more likely to live on females and calves. Any sperm whale might have lice from any of the three species, though, and whale lice are spread when whales rub against each other. This happens when the whales mate, but it also happens when males fight or when whales are just being friendly.

The whale louse has a flattened body and legs that end in claws that help it cling to the whale. Different species are different sizes, from only five millimeters up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. Typically the lice cling to areas where water currents won’t sweep them away, including around the eyes and genital folds, ventral pleats, blowholes, and in wounds. Barnacles also grow on some whales and the lice live around the barnacles. But even though all that sounds horrible, the lice don’t actually harm the whales. They eat dead skin cells and algae, which helps keep wounds clean and reduces the risk of infection.

The right whale is a baleen whale that can grow up to 65 feet long, or almost 20 meters. Right whales have callosities on their heads, which are raised patches of thickened, bumpy skin. Every whale has a different pattern of callosities. Right whales are dark in color, but while the callosities are generally paler than the surrounding skin, they appear white because that’s where the whale lice live, and the lice are white. This allows whales to identify other whales by sight. It’s gross but it works for the whales. Right whales also usually host one or two other species of louse that don’t live on the callosities.

Dolphins typically have very few lice, since most dolphins are much faster and more streamlined than whales and the lice have a harder time not getting washed off. Some dolphins studied have no lice at all, and others have less than a dozen. Almost all whales have lice.

Scientists study whale lice to learn more about whales, including how populations of whales overlap during migration. Studies of the lice on right whales helped researchers determine when the whales split into three species. But sometimes what researchers learn from the lice is puzzling. In 2004 researchers found a dead southern right whale calf and examined it, and were surprised to find it had humpback whale lice, not southern right whale lice. Researchers hypothesize that something had happened to the calf’s birth mother and it was adopted by a humpback whale mother. Another study determined that a single southern right whale crossed the equator between one and two million years ago and joined up with right whales in the North Pacific. Ordinarily right whales can’t cross the equator, since their blubber is too thick and they overheat in warm water. Researchers suggest that the right whale in question was an adventurous juvenile who crossed in an unusually cool year. The lice that whale carried interbred with lice the North Pacific whales carried, leaving a genetic marker to tell us about the whale’s successful adventure.

Some animals do eat whale lice, including a little fish called topsmelt. Topsmelt live in shallow water along the Pacific coast of North America. It grows up to around 14 inches long, or 37 cm, and has tiny sharp teeth that it uses to eat zooplankton. But in mid-winter through spring, gray whales arrive in the warm, shallow waters where the topsmelt live to give birth. Then schools of topsmelt will gather around the whales, eating lice and barnacles from the whale’s skin. Good for those little fish. That makes me feel better for the whales.

Eilee suggested the sea louse a while back, and when I looked it up initially I was horrified. Sea lice is another name for a skin condition called seabather’s eruption that consists of intense itching and welts on the skin, that occurs after someone has been swimming in some parts of the world. That includes around parts of New Zealand, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, off the eastern coast of Africa, parts of south Asia, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and many other places. It usually shows up a few hours after a swimmer gets out of the water, and since it almost always shows up in people who keep wearing their bathing suit for a while after swimming, or wear their suit into a shower to rinse off, people used to think the itching was due to a type of louse that got caught in the suit. They were half-right, because it is due to a microscopic animal that gets trapped against a person’s skin by their bathing suit. It isn’t a louse, though, but the larvae of some species of jellyfish. The larvae aren’t dangerous to humans or anything else, but they do each have a single undeveloped nematocyst. That’s a stinging cell, the same kind that adult jellyfish have. In the case of the larvae, the sting only activates when a larva dies, and it dies if it dries out or gets soaked in fresh water. Fortunately, seabather’s eruption isn’t a very common occurrence and while it’s uncomfortable for a few days, it’s not dangerous and can be treated with anti-itch cream.

There is a type of animal called the sea louse, of course, but it doesn’t want anything to do with humans and wouldn’t bite a human even if it could. It’s a parasitic crustacean like the whale louse, but it only lives on fish. It’s also not related to the whale louse and doesn’t look anything like the whale louse. The whale louse looks kind of like a flattened shrimp without a tail, while the sea louse is hard to describe. It has a flattened shield at the front, with a thinner tail-like section behind, although it’s actually not a tail but the louse’s abdomen. Its legs are underneath its body and are short and hooked so it can keep hold of its host fish, although the shape of its shield acts as a sort of suction cup that also helps it remain attached.

Like the whale louse, different species of sea louse live on different species of fish. It’s usually quite small, less than 10 mm long, although at least one species can grow twice that length. Males are much smaller than females. It eats the mucus, skin, and blood of its host fish, and its mouthparts form a sharp cone that it uses to stab the fish and suck fluids out. Naturally, this isn’t good for the fish.

Most of the time a fish only has a few sea lice, if any, but sometimes when conditions are right a fish can have a much heavier infestation. This can lead to the fish dying in really bad cases, sometimes due to diseases spread by the lice, infected wounds caused by the lice, or just from anemia if the lice drink too much of the fish’s blood.

Conditions are right to spread sea lice when fish are crowded in a small space, and this happens a lot in farmed fish. It’s especially bad in salmon, so while we don’t know a lot about most sea lice, we know a whole lot about the species of sea louse that parasitizes salmon. It’s called Lepeophtheirus salmonis and it’s the sea louse that grows bigger than most others. Salmon are big fish, with the largest growing over 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters.

The salmon sea louse has a complicated life cycle and only lives on fish part of the time, which is probably true of all sea lice. The female louse develops a pair of egg strings that hang down from the rear of her body, and each string has around 150 eggs. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae that mostly just drift along through the water, although they can swim. A larva molts its exoskeleton every few days as it transforms into new stages of development, and all the time it’s looking for a host fish.

Once it finds a salmon, the sea louse grabs hold and stays put until it molts again and reaches the next stage of its development, which doesn’t take long. Then it’s able to walk around on the fish and it can swim too if it needs to.

The sea louse can’t survive very long in fresh water, but that’s weird if you know anything about salmon. Salmon are famous for migrating from the ocean into rivers to spawn, and after spawning, most adult salmon die. Some Atlantic salmon will survive and return to the ocean, but most salmon die within a few days or weeks of spawning. Because all the sea lice die once the salmon enter fresh water, the new generation of salmon don’t get sea lice until they make their way into the ocean.

That’s a natural way that sea lice populations are kept under control. The salmon sea louse will also live on a few other species of fish, including the sea trout. But people like eating salmon, and farming salmon is an important industry. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, having lots of fish in one place means the sea louse can also increase in numbers easily.

Salmon farmers have tried all kinds of things to get rid of sea lice, from underwater lasers that zap the lice to kill them, to putting cleaner fish among the salmon to eat the lice. Scientists are even trying to breed a variety of salmon that’s much more resistant to sea lice infestation, although this is controversial since it makes use of genetic modification. Not all countries allow genetically modified fish to be sold as human food.

For the most part, though, wild fish generally don’t have a lot of sea lice—and if they do, they can just visit a cleaner fish. Thank goodness for cleaner fish!

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