The northern house mosquito Culex pipiens sensu stricto is one of the most important disease vector mosquitoes in temperate zones across the northern hemisphere, responsible for the emergence of West Nile Virus over the last two decades. It comprises two ecologically distinct forms — an aboveground form, pipiens, diapauses in winter and primarily bites birds, while a belowground form, molestus, thrives year-round in subways, basements and other human-made, belowground habitats, bites mammals, and can even lay eggs without a blood meal. The two forms hybridize in some but not all places, leading to a complex ecological mosaic that complicates predictions of vectorial capacity. Moreover, the origin of the belowground molestus is contentious, with iconic populations from the London Underground subway system being held up by evolutionary biologists as a preeminent example of rapid, in situ, urban adaptation and speciation. We review the recent and historical literature on the origin and ecology of this important mosquito and its enigmatic forms. A synthesis of genetic and ecological studies spanning 100+ years clarifies a striking latitudinal gradient — behaviorally divergent and reproductively isolated forms in northern Europe gradually break down into what appear to be well-mixed, intermediate populations in North Africa. Moreover, a continuous narrative thread dating back to the original description of form molestus in Egypt in 1775 refutes the popular idea that belowground mosquitoes in London evolved in situ from their aboveground counterparts. These enigmatic mosquitoes are more likely derived from populations in the Middle East, where human-biting and other adaptations to human environments may have evolved on the timescale of millennia rather than centuries. We outline several areas for future work and discuss the implications of these patterns for public health and for our understanding of urban adaptation in the Anthropocene.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
- General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
- General Neuroscience