Species concepts and malaria parasites: detecting a cryptic species of Plasmodium

Susan L. Perkins


Species of malaria parasite (phylum Apicomplexa: genus Plasmodium) have traditionally been described using the similarity species concept (based primarily on differences in morphological or life–history characteristics). The biological species concept (reproductive isolation) and phylogenetic species concept (based on monophyly) have not been used before in defining species of Plasmodium. Plasmodium azurophilum, described from Anolis lizards in the eastern Caribbean, is actually a two–species cryptic complex. The parasites were studied from eight islands, from Puerto Rico in the north to Grenada in the south. Morphology of the two species is very similar (differences are indistinguishable to the eye), but one infects only erythrocytes and the other only white blood cells. Molecular data for the cytochrome b gene reveal that the two forms are reproductively isolated; distinct haplotypes are present on each island and are never shared between the erythrocyte–infecting and leucocyte–infecting species. Each forms a monophyletic lineage indicating that they diverged before becoming established in the anoles of the eastern Caribbean. This comparison of the similarity, biological and phylogenetic species concepts for malaria parasites reveals the limited value of using only similarity measures in defining protozoan species.

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