Modelling the spatial distribution of aquatic insects (Order Hemiptera) potentially involved in the transmission of Mycobacterium ulcerans in Africa

06 Sep 2018
Cano J, Rodríguez A, Simpson H, Tabah EN, Gómez JF, Pullan RL

BACKGROUND: Biting aquatic insects belonging to the order Hemiptera have been suggested as potential vectors of Mycobacterium ulcerans in endemic areas for Buruli ulcer (BU). If this is the case, these insects would be expected to co-exist with M. ulcerans in the same geographical areas. Here, we studied the geographical distribution of six aquatic Hemiptera families that are thought to be vectors of M. ulcerans and explored their potential geographical overlapping with communities reporting BU cases in endemic countries.

METHODS: We have developed ensemble ecological models of predicted distribution for six families of the Hemiptera (Naucoridae, Belostomatidae, Notonectidae, Nepidae, Corixidae and Gerridae) applying a robust modelling framework over a collection of recorded presences and a suite of environmental and topographical factors. Ecological niche factor analysis (ENFA) was first used to identify factors that best described the ecological niches for each hemipteran family. Finally, we explored the potential geographical co-occurrence of these insects and BU in two endemic countries, Cameroon and Ghana.

RESULTS: Species of the families Naucoridae and Belostomatidae, according to our models, are widely distributed across Africa, although absent from drier and hotter areas. The other two families of biting Hemiptera, the Notonectidae and Nepidae, would have a more restricted distribution, being more predominant in western and southern Africa. All these four families of biting water bugs are widely distributed across coastal areas of West Africa. They would thrive in areas where annual mean temperature varies between 15-22 °C, with moderate annual precipitation (i.e. 350-1000 mm/annual) and near to water courses. Species of all hemipteran families show preference for human-made environments such as agricultural landscapes and urbanized areas. Finally, our analysis suggests that M. ulcerans and species of these aquatic insects might coexist in the same ecological niches, although there would be variation in species diversity between BU endemic areas.

CONCLUSIONS: Our findings predict the geographical co-existence of some species of aquatic hemipteran families and BU. Considering the existing biological evidence that points to some of these aquatic insects as potential phoretic vectors of M. ulcerans, its presence in BU endemic areas should be considered a risk factor. The ecological models here presented may be helpful to inform future environmental based models intended to delineate the potential geographical distribution of BU in the African region.