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Geometric morphometrics of the scutum for differentiation of trombiculid mites within the genus Walchia (Acariformes: Prostigmata: Trombiculidae), a probable vector of scrub typhus

Sungsit Sungvornyothin, Rawadee Kumlert, Daniel H. Paris, Anchana Prasartvit, Piengchan Sonthayanon, Chamnarn Apiwathnasorn, Serge Morand, Alexandr A. Stekolnikov, Suchada Sumruayphol

Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases, 10 (2): 495-503 (2019).


The vectors of scrub typhus are the larval stage of trombiculid mites, termed “chiggers”. These vectors are very small – the larvae are approximately 0.2 mm in size - and therefore their morphological identification is difficult. Trombiculid mites are widely distributed across Asia and they can be identified at the genus level by the shape, size and setae/sensilla distribution of their dorsal chitin plate (scutum = shield), while morphological identification at the species level requires more mite characteristics.

We recently developed a methodology to ascertain paired matched genotype and morphotype of individual chiggers, based on autofluorescence and brightfield microscopy with subsequent molecular identification using the COI gene (approximately 640bp length). However, based on 20 chigger specimens characterised by paired genotypic and morphological data consisting of the four species [Walchia ewingi with 2 subspecies]: Walchia ewingi lupella (n = 9), W. ewingi ewingi (n = 2), W. alpestris (n = 2), W. kritochaeta (n = 5) and W. minuscuta (n = 2) we found evidence of genetic polymorphism and morphological plasticity within the genus Walchia. The phylogenetic inference of the intra-genus relationships within the Walchia spp., based on COI gene (Blankaartia spp. served as outgroup), delineated the five included species by an average interspecific divergence of mean distance 0.218 (0.126 – 0.323).

We therefore applied landmark-based and outline-based geometric morphometric (GM) approaches to differentiate Walchia species using scutum measurements. A total of 261 scutum images of Walchia spp. were examined by landmark-based GM (140 chigger specimens) and outline-based GM (121 specimens) techniques. All Walchia spp. showed significant differences in scutum size and shape. W. minuscuta showed the smallest mean scutum size in both techniques. The largest scutum was found in W. ewingi lupella and W. ewingi ewingi by landmark-based and outline-based GM analysis, respectively. The scutum shapes of W. alpestris and W. minuscuta were clearly distinguished from the other species. Cross-validated classification scores were different depending on species and digitizing techniques and landmark-based GM showed better scores than outline-based GM. We conclude that the morphologically closely-related trombiculid mite species can be further differentiated by their scutum features alone, using GM approaches. This technique is a promising tool for the much-needed characterization studies of chiggers and needs evaluation using matched morphometric and genotyping data for other genera of trombiculids.

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