Background: The 148 species of kissing bug include important vectors of the debilitating, chronic, and often fatal Chagas disease, which affects several million people in Central and South America. An understanding of the natural hosts of this speciose group of blood-feeding insects has and will continue to aid ongoing efforts to impede the spread of Chagas disease. However, information on kissing bug biology is piecemeal and scattered, developed using methods with varying levels of accuracy over more than 100 years. Existing host records are heavily biased towards well-studied primary vector species and are derived from primarily three different types of observations, associational, immunological or DNA-based, with varying reliability.
Methods: We here gather a comprehensive and unparalleled number of sources reporting host associations via rigorous targeted searches of publication databases to review all known natural, or sylvatic, host records including information on how that record was collected. We integrate this information with novel host records obtained via attempted amplification and sequencing of a ~160 base pair (bp) region of the vertebrate 12S mitochondrial gene from the gastrointestinal tract of 64 archival specimens of Triatominae representing 19 species collected primarily in sylvatic habitats throughout the southern U.S. and Central and South America during the past 10 years. We show the utility of this method for uncovering novel and under-studied groups of Triatominae hosts, as well as detecting the presence of the Chagas disease pathogen via Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) of a ~400 bp sequence of the trypanosome 18S gene.
Results: New host associations for several groups of arboreal mammals were determined including sloths, New World monkeys, coatis, arboreal porcupines and, for the first time as a host of any Triatominae, tayras. A thorough review of previously documented sylvatic hosts, organized by triatomine species and the type of observation (associational, antibody-based, or DNA-based), is presented in a phylogenetic context and highlights large gaps in our knowledge of Triatominae biology.
Conclusion: The application of DNA-based methods of host identification towards additional species of Triatominae, including rarely collected species that may require use of archival specimens, is the most efficient and promising way to resolve recognized shortfalls.