Solitary weasel-like animals called tayra might look pretty harmless, but some may actually be incubators for a parasite that causes Chagas disease, a chronic, debilitating condition that is spread by insects called kissing bugs and affects more than 8 million people worldwide. In a study published today in the journal PeerJ, researchers from the University of California, Riverside have identified several new hosts for parasite-spreading kissing bug species, including tayras, new world monkeys, sloths, porcupines, and coatis—which are the South American cousins of racoons.

Kissing bug next to penny Image/Rachel Curtis-Hamer Labs
Kissing bug next to penny
Image/Rachel Curtis-Hamer Labs

The research is important because, despite its prevalence, relatively little is known about the transmission of Chagas disease, a deadly, incurable condition that is most common in Latin America.

“There are 152 species of kissing bug, but we don’t know much about most of them, including the animals they feed on that can act as reservoirs for the parasite. Overall, the existing data is piecemeal, scattered, and biased toward a handful of heavily studied and well-documented species, while little data exists for insects that are found in very secluded habitats,” said Christiane Weirauch, a professor of entomology in UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

The UCR study not only increases our knowledge of Chagas disease transmission in rural environments, but also provides the most comprehensive review of animal hosts of the kissing bugs that spread Chagas disease. The research, led by Anna Georgieva, an undergraduate majoring in biology, and Eric Gordon, a graduate student researcher in Weirauch’s lab, will support efforts to control the disease, particularly in poor, rural populations in South America.

LISTEN: A look at the neglected tropical disease, Chagas disease

Chagas disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and humans by members of the assassin bug subfamily called kissing bugs that feed on blood and are named for their tendency to bite people around the mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kissing bugs become infected with T. cruzi by biting an infected animal or person and, once infected, they pass T. cruzi parasites in their feces. When they bite a person and ingest blood, they defecate on them. A person can become infected if bug feces enters their body through mucous membranes or skin lesions caused by the bite wound or scratching. Research also suggests that animals can become infected by eating other animals that harbor the parasite.

Read more at UC Riverside