Louse (plural: lice) is the common name for members of over 3,000 species of wingless insects of the order Phthiraptera; three of which are classified as human disease agents. They are obligate ectoparasites of every avian and mammalian order except for monotremes (the platypus and echidnas), bats, whales, dolphins, porpoises and pangolins.
Most lice are scavengers, feeding on skin and other debris found on the host’s body, but some species feed on sebaceous secretions and blood. Most are found on only specific types of animals, and, in some cases, on only a particular part of the body; some animals are known to host up to fifteen different species, although one to three is typical for mammals, and two to six for birds. For example, in humans, different species of louse inhabit the scalp and pubic hair. Lice generally cannot survive for long if removed from their host.
A louse’s color varies from pale beige to dark gray; however, if feeding on blood, it may become considerably darker. Female lice are usually more common than the males, and some species are even known to be parthenogenetic. A louse’s egg is commonly called a nit. Many lice attach their eggs to their host’s hair with specialised saliva; the saliva/hair bond is very difficult to sever without specialized products. Lice inhabiting birds, however, may simply leave their eggs in parts of the body inaccessible to preening, such as the interior of feather shafts. Living lice eggs tend to be pale white. Dead lice eggs are more yellow.
Lice are exopterygotes, being born as miniature versions of the adult, known as nymphs. The young moult three times before reaching the final adult form, usually within a month of hatching.