Host-parasite systems can be powerful arenas in which to explore factors influencing community structure. We used a comparative approach to examine the influence of host ecology and morphology on the diversity of chewing lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera) among 52 species of Peruvian birds. For each host species we calculated two components of parasite diversity: 1) cumulative species richness, and 2) mean abundance. We tested for correlations between these parasite indices and 13 host ecological and morphological variables. Host ecological variables included geographic range size, local population density, and microhabitat use. Host morphological variables included body mass, plumage depth, and standard dimensions of bill, foot and toenail morphology, all of which could influence the efficiency of anti-parasite grooming. Data were analysed using statistical and comparative methods that control for sampling effort and host phylogeny. None of the independent host variables correlated with louse species richness when treated as a dependent variable. When richness was treated as an independent variable, however, it was positively correlated with mean louse abundance. Host body mass was also positively correlated with mean louse abundance. When louse richness and host body mass were held constant, mean louse abundance correlated negatively with the degree to which the upper mandible of the host's bill overhangs the lower mandible. This correlation suggests that birds with longer overhangs are better at controlling lice during preening. We propose a specific functional hypothesis in which preening damages lice by exerting a shearing force between the overhang and the tip of the lower mandible. This study is the first to suggest a parasite-control function of such a detailed component of bill morphology across species. Avian biologists have traditionally focused almost exclusively on bills as tools for feeding. We suggest that the adaptive radiation of bill morphology should be reinterpreted with both preening and feeding in mind.
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