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What’s the point of nits?! – Connie, age 9, Nambour, Queensland.
Great question, Connie. I often find myself scratching my head trying to figure out the answer to that question too!
What we commonly call “nits” are actually the eggs of very small insects known as head lice. And head lice are found nowhere else on the planet except in human hair.
Head lice have adapted perfectly to life on us. They have specially designed claws at the ends of each of their six legs that are perfect for scuttling up and down the shafts of hair.
In fact, they’re so perfectly designed for life on our hair that once they come off they’re incredibly clumsy and have a tough time getting around at all. That’s why they’re most commonly spread between children through direct head-to-head contact. Lice are tricky enough to navigate the tangle of two people’s hair.
Once lice have infested someone, they will climb down the hair to the scalp and bite. They need our blood to live and lay eggs. While we’ll sometimes get a reaction to their bites, that reaction is rarely as bad as they type we get from mosquitoes or ticks. Importantly, head lice don’t transmit the germs that make us sick like those other pests. At worst, we’ll just get a little itchy.Shutterstock
So, what is the point of head lice? Perhaps they don’t have a “point” at all. We like to think that all creatures play a role in the local ecosystem. We’re especially interested in insects that provide a benefit for people too. A great example are the bees and other insects that pollinate our crops that are crucial in providing food.
But perhaps head lice don’t play what we would traditionally see as an important role in the ecosystem. They don’t pollinate plants, they’re not food for other animals, and they don’t exactly bring joy to our lives in the way other, cuter animals do. When it comes to charismatic insects, head lice aren’t quite up there with butterflies or dragonflies!
I think lice see us as playing a role – providing them with food – but the reverse may not be true.Shutterstock
Perhaps we need to take a different perspective when thinking about the “point” of head lice. We marvel at the ability of plants and animals around the world to adapt to all the weird and wonderful cracks and crevices in the environment. Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from head lice being able to adapt to life on the human body?
Like many of the other insect pests that impact our lives, it can be hard to be sympathetic to head lice. As concern is growing about global insect declines, I’m sure parents and carers trying to wrangle lice-infested children aren’t thinking about insect conservation!Shutterstock
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Authors: Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney