Background: Chagas disease is a parasitic infection transmitted by "kissing bugs" (Hemiptera: Reduviidae: Triatominae) that has a huge economic impact in Latin American countries. The vector species with the upmost epidemiological importance in Ecuador are Rhodnius ecuadoriensis (Lent & Leon, 1958) and Triatoma dimidiata (Latreille, 1811). However, other species such as Panstrongylus howardi (Neiva, 1911) and Panstrongylus chinai (Del Ponte, 1929) act as secondary vectors due to their growing adaptation to domestic structures and their ability to transmit the parasite to humans. The latter two taxa are distributed in two different regions, they are allopatric and differ mainly by their general color. Their relative morphological similarity led some authors to suspect that P. chinai is a melanic form of P. howardi.
Methods: The present study explored this question using different approaches: antennal phenotype; geometric morphometrics of heads, wings and eggs; cytogenetics; molecular genetics; experimental crosses; and ecological niche modeling.
Results: The antennal morphology, geometric morphometrics of head and wing shape and cytogenetic analysis were unable to show distinct differences between the two taxa. However, geometric morphometrics of the eggs, molecular genetics, ecological niche modeling and experimental crosses including chromosomal analyses of the F1 hybrids, in addition to their coloration and current distribution support the hypothesis that P. chinai and P. howardi are separate species.
Conclusions: Based on the evidence provided here, P. howardi and P. chinai should not be synonymized. They represent two valid, closely related species.
Keywords: Antennal phenotype; Ecological niche modeling; Ecuador; Experimental hybridization; Geometric morphometry; Panstrongylus; Triatominae.