Feather holes of rock ptarmigans are associated with amblyceran chewing lice

Ute Stenkewitz, Ólafur Karl Nielsen, Karl Skírnisson, Gunnar Stefánsson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Feather holes have traditionally been suggested to be feeding traces of chewing lice (mallophagans). There is controversy whether mallophagans are the real source of feather holes. We studied mallophagan infestations and holes in tail feathers of 528 rock ptarmigan Lagopus muta collected 2007–2012 in northeast Iceland. Three mallophagans were found, Amyrsidea lagopi (prevalence 13%), Goniodes lagopi (72%) and Lagopoecus affinis (51%). The prevalence of feather holes was 15% and based on pattern the holes could be separated into two groups termed feather hole swarms (FHS), prevalence 9%, and single holes (SH), prevalence 6%. Holes for FHS were concentrated in the central tail feathers and decreased outwards, but holes for SH did not show any such pattern. There was a significant positive relationship between the number of holes for FHS birds and A. lagopi number, and the prevalence was similar. No other combinations of FHS or SH and the mallophagans indicated any relationship. The observed differences between FHS and SH suggest that feather holes have different origin. Our thesis based on known feeding habits of amblycerans like A. lagopi is that the holes in FHS are created during the pin feather stage when the lice bite the pin feather to draw blood. The holes in FHS were often in lines parallel to the feather shaft and the distance between adjacent holes was similar to the daily growth band, and where apparent the holes were sitting in the light portion of the band suggesting diurnal rhythm in lice feeding activity. Concluding, feather holes in ptarmigan may have various origins, but there is a clear correlation between the presence and numbers of A. lagopi and FHS. This is a novel finding for the grouse family and the genus Amyrsidea and should be a valuable contribution to the studies of feather hole formation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)wlb.00255
JournalWildlife Biology
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017

Other keywords

  • Rjúpa
  • Lýs
  • Sníklar


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