Digitising lice and uncovering the Meinertzhagen mystery | Digital Collections Programme

We are in the process of digitising the Museum’s parasitic louse (Phthiraptera) collection, which consists of around 73,000 microscope slides. The collection is one of the largest – and the most taxonomically comprehensive – in the world.

A high resolution image showing two human lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) in detail.
Human lice specimens (Pediculus humanus capitis)

Lice are permanent ectoparasites, meaning they live on the outside of their bird and mammal hosts. They are highly host specific, with the majority of the ~5,000 louse species being unique to a particular host species of mammals and birds.

As their evolutionary history is closely related to that of their hosts, parasitic lice are frequently used as a model to study co-evolutionary processes.

co-evolution is the process that occurs when two species influence each other during evolution.

A photograph of a tray of microscope slides.
Preparing our louse slides

Lice also carry a number of pathogens, several of which have had profound historical impact on human populations. There are a number of documented events where louse-borne disease has had a major influence on the course of human history (e.g. louse-borne typhus).

Cultural significance of the louse collection

A majority of this collection was developed by Theresa Clay. Clay was the Deputy Keeper of Entomology (insects) at the Museum from 1970-1975. She was the only woman to achieve this rank within the Museum at the time. A substantial proportion of the louse material (~50%) was amassed from bird and mammal specimens collected by Richard Meinertzhagen, who was the first cousin and close confidant of Clay.

Image of a microscope slide and high resolution image of lice found on a bird
Lice (Piccolo grundespectus) from a bird that Meinetzhagen named Geocolaptes olivaceus theresae after Clay.

Meinertzhagen is a controversial figure. As an acclaimed British soldier, intelligence officer and ornithologist, he is now widely accused of fabricating his feats as well as stealing bird specimens that were submitted as original discoveries. As a result, doubts have been raised about the veracity of his bird collections, now housed at the Natural History Museum at Tring.

The louse material offers an independent dataset that could not be falsified without generating counterfeit host records. By databasing Meinertzhagen’s louse collections, which include unique identifiers linking them to his bird collection, and by cross referencing these records with the bird records at Tring, this digitisation project offers the prospect of unravelling questions of authenticity in the Meinertzhagen bird collection.

How will the data be made available?

We will be imaging the louse slides, transcribing the label information and publishing the information on the Museum’s Data Portal. This is the first time that this kind of end to end digitisation workflow, including imaging, transcription (including crowdsourcing) and publication, will be tested for the Digital Collections Programme. As such this project will provide valuable learnings that will underpin all future mass digitisation projects.

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