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Holding tight to feathers – structural specializations and attachment properties of the avian ectoparasite Crataerina pallida (Diptera, Hippoboscidae) [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Dennis S. Petersen, Nils Kreuter, Lars Heepe, Sebastian Büsse, Arndt H. J. Wellbrock, Klaudia Witte, and Stanislav N. Gorb

The louse fly Crataerina pallida is an obligate blood-sucking ectoparasite of the common swift Apus apus. As a result of reduction of the wings, C. pallida is unable to fly; thus, an effective and reliable attachment to their host’s plumage is of utmost importance. The attachment system of C. pallida shows several modifications in comparison to that of other calyptrate flies, notably the large tridentate claws and the dichotomously shaped setae located on the pulvilli. Based on data from morphological analysis, confocal laser scanning microscopy, cryo-scanning electron microscopy and attachment force experiments performed on native (feathers) as well as artificial substrates (glass, epoxy resin and silicone rubber), we showed that the entire attachment system is highly adapted to the fly’s lifestyle as an ectoparasite. The claws in particular are the main contributor to strong attachment to the host. Resulting attachment forces on feathers make it impossible to detach C. pallida without damage to the feathers or to the legs of the louse fly itself. Well-developed pulvilli are responsible for the attachment to smooth surfaces. Both dichotomously shaped setae and high setal density explain high attachment forces observed on smooth substrates. For the first time, we demonstrate a material gradient within the setae, with soft, resilin-dominated apical tips and stiff, more sclerotized bases in Diptera. The empodium seems not to be directly involved in the attachment process, but it might operate as a cleaning device and may be essential to maintain the functionality of the entire attachment system.

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