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Researchers are looking for more elephant lice
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 03/09/2020

Because they are so tiny, it is not the easiest thing in the world to spot lice on an elephant. Collecting them is even more difficult. That is why a parasite ecologist from Stellenbosch University (SU) is asking veterinarians and people involved in the game industry to help with a research project by collecting elephant lice.

Prof Sonja Matthee of the SU Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology in the Faculty of AgriSciences says elephant lice (Haematomyzus elephantis) are generally smaller than 1 cm, and dark in colour. Typically, they are found between the hairs on an elephant's trunk, tail, lower body or around the eyes. They are therefore quite difficult to spot at first glance.

"The easiest way is to be on the lookout for lice eggs, which tend to stick like fine water droplets to the hair on an elephant's body," she advices.

Prof Matthee asks that people who work regularly with elephants, for example when they are anesthetising them for translocation or medical examinations, to keep an eye open for such lice, and to collect samples on her behalf.

Prof Matthee is an expert on fleas, lice and other parasitic insects that occur on South African wildlife. Together with her students she has over the course of the past two decades studied such parasites found on anything from striped mice to penguins. Different types of animals each have their own species of fleas and lice, and many are associated with them almost exclusively, she says.

"Currently the louse species that occurs on African and Asian elephants is regarded as one and the same species. We want to see if this really is the case, or if there are in fact different species to be found," says Prof Matthee.

She is conducting the elephant lice research in collaboration with lice expert Prof Lance Durden from Georgia Southern University in the USA, with whom she has been collaborating since 2003. Collaborators from Australia and from the Hans Hoheisen Research Station in the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Pretoria will also assist them in the endeavour.

Examples of elephant lice collected during the study will be genetically analysed. Their external characteristics will also be thoroughly studied, among others thanks to electron microscopy.

Elephant lice (Haematomyzus elephantis) belong to a group or suborder of three lice species that occur on mammals with strong skins. Also included in this suborder are warthog lice (Haematomyzus hopkinsi) and Haematomyzus porci, a species that occurs on the red river hog of the forests of central Africa.

For information on how to assist Prof Matthee in her research, contact her on or 082 4134344.