Diptera vectors of avian Haemosporidian parasites: untangling parasite life cycles and their taxonomy

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2012 Nov;87(4):928-64. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2012.00234.x. Epub 2012 May 23.


Haemosporida is a large group of vector-borne intracellular parasites that infect amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This group includes the different malaria parasites (Plasmodium spp.) that infect humans around the world. Our knowledge on the full life cycle of these parasites is most complete for those parasites that infect humans and, to some extent, birds. However, our current knowledge on haemosporidian life cycles is characterized by a paucity of information concerning the vector species responsible for their transmission among vertebrates. Moreover, our taxonomic and systematic knowledge of haemosporidians is far from complete, in particular because of insufficient sampling in wild vertebrates and in tropical regions. Detailed experimental studies to identify avian haemosporidian vectors are uncommon, with only a few published during the last 25 years. As such, little knowledge has accumulated on haemosporidian life cycles during the last three decades, hindering progress in ecology, evolution, and systematic studies of these avian parasites. Nonetheless, recently developed molecular tools have facilitated advances in haemosporidian research. DNA can now be extracted from vectors' blood meals and the vertebrate host identified; if the blood meal is infected by haemosporidians, the parasite's genetic lineage can also be identified. While this molecular tool should help to identify putative vector species, detailed experimental studies on vector competence are still needed. Furthermore, molecular tools have helped to refine our knowledge on Haemosporida taxonomy and systematics. Herein we review studies conducted on Diptera vectors transmitting avian haemosporidians from the late 1800s to the present. We also review work on Haemosporida taxonomy and systematics since the first application of molecular techniques and provide recommendations and suggest future research directions. Because human encroachment on natural environments brings human populations into contact with novel parasite sources, we stress that the best way to avoid emergent and reemergent diseases is through a program encompassing ecological restoration, environmental education, and enhanced understanding of the value of ecosystem services.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bird Diseases / parasitology*
  • Birds
  • Diptera / parasitology*
  • Haemosporida / classification*
  • Haemosporida / physiology*
  • Protozoan Infections, Animal / parasitology*
  • Protozoan Infections, Animal / transmission