A team of U.S. Navy entomologists has discovered a new species of sand fly in Peru. These flies are tiny, but some of them pack a big punch — they’re known vectors of leishmaniasis, a disease that attacks both animals and humans.
The new species of sand fly was collected during an ecological study of arbovirus vectors in Peru, and is described in an article published in the Journal of Medical Entomology. The new species was given the name Lutzomyia nautaensis. It is named after Nauta, a village located at the origin of the Amazon River.
Lieutenant Commander Dr. Craig Stoops, the public affairs officer of Naval Medical Research Unit 6, the research unit that discovered the new species, noted that leishmaniasis is a prevalent disease in the region of Peru where the sand fly was discovered.
“Leishmaniasis is a serious health concern for the local population,” said Dr. Stoops.
Cutaneous leishmaniasis is one of the most common forms that affect humans. It presents itself through skin lesions and ulcers, with an estimated 0.7 million to 1.2 million cases per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A particularly nasty strain called visceral leishmaniasis results in 22,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
“In this region of Peru,” the researchers wrote, “cutaneous leishmaniasis is transmitted primarily by anthropophilic sand flies; however, zoophilic sand flies of the subgenus Trichophoromyia may also be incriminated in disease transmission. Detection of Leishmania spp. in Lutzomyia auraensis captured in the southern Peruvian Amazon indicates the potential of this and other zoophilic sand flies for human disease transmission, particularly in areas undergoing urban development.”
In addition to the new species described in the paper, the researchers also reported three new undescribed species and identified three other sand fly species that are new records for the area in their study.
These types of studies are common for Navy entomologists, who are tasked with researching harmful insects in order to better protect military troops from diseases.
“The main role for Navy Entomologists is to protect Sailors and Marines from malaria, arboviruses, and any insect-borne pathogen that may threaten the health of Department of the Navy personnel in the United States and abroad,” said Dr. Stoops. “We work very closely with our colleagues in the Army, Air Force, and Department of Defense civilian personnel to provide protection for everyone in the Department of Defense regardless of branch of service. We serve as subject-matter experts overseeing both large- and small-scale vector-control programs anywhere we are asked to do so. Tightly tied to our direct public health mission, we conduct research on novel ways to control insect vectors and also their bionomics, distribution, and taxonomy to have the best tools to carry out our preventive medicine programs.”
In fact, the Navy has been employing entomologists since World War II, with 38 active entomologists, seven reserve entomologists, and numerous civilian employees currently stationed across the United States and in Egypt and Peru.
In the Amazon region of Peru where L. nautaensis was found, researchers are confident that more novel findings are on the horizon.
“The diversity of Lutzomyia is always fascinating,” Dr. Stoops said. “L. nautaensis is from one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth, so there are many amazing and interesting discoveries yet to be made.”
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