Temperature variation on the host is known to influence ectoparasite distributions. Ectoparasites may also use temperature gradients between host regions when moving on the host; however, tests are rare. Feather-feeding wing lice (Phthiraptera: Ischnocera) spend the majority of their time on the flight feathers of their avian hosts where they insert their bodies between feather barbs to escape host preening. However, because wing lice feed on downy abdominal feathers, they must repeatedly migrate between the flight feathers and body regions of their hosts. We performed a series of experiments that tested thermo-orientation in wing lice and evaluated its potential use during louse migrations between host regions. We found that wing lice can rapidly and accurately locate nearby heat targets that approximate host temperatures (37 C), demonstrating a capacity for directed thermo-orientation. We next tested the preference of wing lice for temperatures found along migration routes between bird flight feathers and their body regions. Wing lice could distinguish between temperatures found within distinct bird regions, and lice that had recently fed preferred the cooler temperatures (32 C), similar to those within bird flight feathers where they typically reside. However, when starved for 18–20 hr, wing lice shifted their preferences toward temperatures typical of bird body regions where they feed (36 C), demonstrating an ability to use thermal cues when moving between bird regions. We discuss the use of thermal cues during louse migration and microhabitat selection, as well as other potential impacts of thermo-orientation on host–parasite interactions.
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Vol. 100 • No. 4