A "new" mosquito species? Hardly...

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Wed Jan 31 11:57:13 CST 2001

This month's "Natural History" magazine contains an article (p. 86) that
essentially claims to be about anthropogenic speciation. The article states
that research by Richard Nichols and Katherine Byrne on the genetics of
Culex pipiens and Culex molestus indicate that the latter evolved - and
continues to evolve - in isolation from C. pipiens in its manmade habitat.

The article claims that during WWII, "Biologists named the attackers Culex
molestus, presuming that they belonged to a species distinct from the
aboveground C. pipiens." It is also said that C. molestus "lives
exclusively in the tunnels of the London Underground." The article
continually implies that there has been some "mystery" as to whether
pipiens and molestus are indeed separate, that molestus is a "new species",
and that there is something remarkable in finding that molestus populations
in the Underground "are more genetically similar to one another than to
their aboveground brethren."

What confuses me is this: Forskal described C. molestus in 1775, from
specimens collected in Egypt, where this species occurs in the wild, among
many other places.

[see Harbach, R.E., B.A. Harrison and A.M. Gad. 1984. Culex (Culex)
molestus Forskal (Diptera: Culicidae): neotype designation, description,
variation and taxonomic status. Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 86(3): 521-542]

That means, effectively, that this article is just so much nonsense, which
is not encouraging for such a high-profile science magazine.

Before I write a scathing letter to the editor, as I'm tempted, I was
wondering if anyone here could offer any additional insights into this
matter - it looks to me like one of two things is possible, and it would be
useful to distinguish between the two: (1) sloppy journalism and
sensationalism, on the part of the author of the article (2) researchers
who had either failed to do their homework (and thought there was something
debatable about the status of C. molestus when there was not), or failed to
communicate the reality of the situation.
I'd normally be tempted to think explanation #1 more likely, but if these
researchers were doing their lab rearings and DNA analysis *in order to
show* that populations of C. molestus were similar to one another and
different from C. pipiens, then it could be option #2. People were already
fully aware that these were different species with different biologies, at
least since the 1930's, so why would anyone re-do the same work? Am I
missing something?

If there is a mosquito mailing list (I think there is), it might be helpful
if someone could post this there.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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