Unlocking the black box of feather louse diversity: A molecular phylogeny of the hyper-diverse genus Brueelia

Sarah E. Bush, Jason D. Weckstein, Daniel R. Gustafsson, Julie Allen, Emily DiBlasi, Scott M. Shreve, Rachel Boldt, Heather R. Skeen, Kevin P. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Songbirds host one of the largest, and most poorly understood, groups of lice: the Brueelia-complex. The Brueelia-complex contains nearly one-tenth of all known louse species (Phthiraptera), and the genus Brueelia has over 300 species. To date, revisions have been confounded by extreme morphological variation, convergent evolution, and periodic movement of lice between unrelated hosts. Here we use Bayesian inference based on mitochondrial (COI) and nuclear (EF-1α) gene fragments to analyze the phylogenetic relationships among 333 individuals within the Brueelia-complex. We show that the genus Brueelia, as it is currently recognized, is paraphyletic. Many well-supported and morphologically unified clades within our phylogenetic reconstruction of Brueelia were previously described as genera. These genera should be recognized, and the erection of several new genera should be explored. We show that four distinct ecomorphs have evolved repeatedly within the Brueelia-complex, mirroring the evolutionary history of feather-lice across the entire order. We show that lice in the Brueelia-complex, with some notable exceptions, are extremely host specific and that the host family associations and geographic distributions of these lice are significantly correlated with our understanding of their phylogenetic history. Several ecological phenomena, including phoresis, may be responsible for the macroevolutionary patterns in this diverse group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)737-751
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Issue numberB
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Brueelia
  • Ecomorph
  • Host-specificity
  • Lice
  • Macroevolution
  • Songbirds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics

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