Human Pubic Lice Acquired From Gorillas?

This is a disagreeable topic but I think David Reed is being a little to generous about the moral character of early man.  I have no hard evidence to refute his argument, just an anecdote about a distant relative (in-law), a third cousin twice removed on my mother’s side of the tree.

Uncle Harold, the legend goes was what some call a “funny uncle” to distinguish him from the uncle whose lap you could sit on.

Apparently, he had a strong sense of the prime directive of all living things.  He felt it his duty to copulate with anything in order to spread the seed.  At one time he calculated that in one episode there were 2.8 x 108 sperm per effort and at those odds he’d better get started.

One time he almost got shot in the hen house because the hens made so much noise grandpa thought it was a coyote (it’s dark at night in a hen house).

Rumor has it that he had regular encounters through a knothole in the barn with an affectionate cow and a jar of honey.  Some of this apocryphal behavior was probably exaggerated since the commentary came mainly from my father’s side of the family (mother always insisting he was an exIN-LAW!).

Nevertheless, Mr Reed may be generous to a fault although I concede that were I of that persuasion I certainly would not blow in the ear of a mountain gorilla; perhaps a tame bonobo.

“…I know a caretaker at a zoo who used to work with chimps, which are rather platonic kissers. When he had to take care of the bonobos one day, and accepted a kiss from one of them, the man was taken aback feeling a whole tongue in his mouth. See Huffinton Post…

Certainly, there is some evidence that Sapiens and Neandertalis genomes might have mixed.  Recalling recent wars in Africa and the Balkans, Sapiens (us) know few bounds in equating the thrill of war with the thrill of sex. – carlos

Human Pubic Lice Acquired From Gorillas Gives Evolutionary Clues

See Science Daily…— Humans acquired pubic lice from gorillas several million years ago, but this seemingly seedy connection does not mean that monkey business went on with the great apes, a new University of Florida study finds.

Rather than close encounters of the intimate kind, humans most likely got the gorilla’s lice from sleeping in their nests or eating the giant apes, said David Reed, assistant curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, one of the study’s authors. The research is published in the current edition of the BMC Biology journal.

“It certainly wouldn’t have to be what many people are going to immediately assume it might have been, and that is sexual intercourse occurring between humans and gorillas,” he said. “Instead of something sordid, it could easily have stemmed from an activity that was considerably more tame.”

About 3.3 million years ago, lice found on gorillas began to infest humans, Reed said. That they took up residence in the pubic region may have coincided with humans’ loss of hair on the rest of their bodies and the lack of any other suitable niche, he said.

Reed and his co-workers’ research stemmed from their fascination with humans’ unique position among primates in being host to two different kinds of lice: one on the head and body (Pediculus), which has become the bane of many schoolchildren, and pubic or crab lice (Pthirus). In contrast, chimps have only head lice and gorillas pubic lice.

Understanding the history of lice is important because the tiny insects give clues about the lifestyles of early hominids and evolution of modern humans, Reed said. Because the human fossil record is patchy and finding early DNA samples is extremely difficult, parasites such as head lice, pubic lice, tapeworms and pinworms that have existed for millions of years provide valuable clues, he said.

“These lice really give us the potential to learn how humans evolved when so many parts of our evolutionary history are obscure,” he said. Lice also can serve as a model in understanding how parasites move from one species to another, Reed said.

“If you look at emerging infectious diseases that affect humans all over the world, most have their origins on some other host before threatening humans,” he said. “Studying what it takes for a parasite to be successful in switching hosts adds to our knowledge about what makes a good host for the spread of disease.”

Working with other scientists who collected lice from primates in Ugandan wildlife sanctuaries, the research team extracted DNA from the lice and used fossil data from humans and gorillas to estimate how long ago these two types of lice shared a common ancestor.

In particular, the researchers looked at whether pubic lice developed on their own in humans or whether humans acquired them from gorillas. They believed humans were more likely to have had lice all along because this was a simpler explanation than acquiring lice from gorillas, but they were proved wrong.

It is not unusual for lice to switch hosts, with this occurring in both birds and mammals, Reed said. Lice that lived on the passenger pigeon before it became extinct persist today because they switched to another species of pigeon, he said.

Lice need either direct physical contact or very recent contact to switch hosts, Reed said. In this specific case, the parasite might have been transmitted to humans sleeping in a depression in the ground where a gorilla had slept and nested the night before or even by humans feeding on gorillas, he said.

“Unfortunately, even today among modern humans there’s a bush meat trade where gorillas are killed for their meat,” he said. “If archaic humans were butchering or scavenging those animals 3.3 million years ago, it would be a simple thing to transfer those lice from prey to predator.”

Because humans and gorillas are so closely related and have so many potential interactions of a nonsexual nature, it would have been less likely for the lice to have been transmitted through sexual intercourse, he said.

Reed did the study with postdoctoral researcher Jessica Light at the Florida Museum of Natural History and zoology graduate students Julie Allen and Jeremy Kirchman.

“This paper makes one’s imagination run wild, giving graphic new meaning to that ‘800 pound gorilla,'” said Dale Clayton, a University of Utah biology professor. “However, as the authors point out, the inferred host switch of pubic lice from gorillas to humans did not require sexual contact. Human pubic or ‘crab’ lice get transmitted between people on bath towels all the time. So it is easy to imagine that gorilla lice could have transmitted to humans via shared sleeping quarters, or predation, as the authors suggest.”

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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One Response to Human Pubic Lice Acquired From Gorillas?

  1. Carlos, I got very well impressed about your blog. That’s what I call “a blog”. I liked your humor as well as the subject of this article. Now I know a lot about lice and bonobos. A very curious theme to learn on from those who are “expertise” on the matter. A very interesting walk in neanderthalis’ time following the route of Pthirus and Pediculus.
    I thank you a lot!

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