Thursday, December 4, 2014
Reaching up to a full inch in length, these crustaceans might be the largest body bugs on Earth, which is hardly surprising considering that they live exclusively on whales, where they feed harmlessly off algae and flaking skin. Once overlooked by biologists, we now know that their genetics closely parallel the genetics of their hosts, differing between whale lineages and even between individuals as a part of every animal’s unique identity. This is particularly true for the three species of “Right” Whale, whose characteristic white “lumps” are actually thousands of lice clinging to special patches of rough skin. These patches serve no other known purpose, but the patterns of white lice make every whale immediately recognizable to observers and perhaps even to their own kind.