Acanthiophilus is a genus of fruit flies that infest plants of the tribe Cardueae (thistles) within the family Asteraceae. Members of this genus live in Africa, the Canary Islands, Europe, and Asia. Some species of Acanthiophilus are potential biological control agents of weeds, and others are serious pests to economically important crop plants. For example, the safflower fly, A. helianthi, is a significant pest to safflower in Europe and the Middle East.
There is little previous research on the life history of this group, and the phylogeny of the Acanthiophilus has never before been systematically studied. However, a new study published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America helps to fill this gap in knowledge by investigating the phylogeny of Acanthiophilus using morphological data, and also the science of cladistics, which infers evolutionary relationships statistically based on the number of characters shared among groups. The authors provide a revision of the genus and a detailed, illustrated key to all of its members. In addition, they describe three new species: A. minor, A. summissus, and A. unicus.
"The revision of Acanthiophilus is a part of a bigger project, which is a revision of both Acanthiophilus and the fruit fly genus Tephritomyia," said Dr. Elizabeth Morgulis, one of the co-authors. "When we began our research, our hypothesis was that Acanthiophilus and Tephritomyia form a monophyletic group. Based on our previous knowledge, some of the species that were assigned to Acanthiophilus actually belonged to other genera, and we also recognized three undescribed species of Acanthiophilus. These data led us to revise the genus Acanthiophilus."
When asked about the most important next steps for the study of Acanthiophilus, Morgulis said, "What is needed is a larger-scale cladistic analysis and a molecular phylogenetic analysis, which will include Acanthiophilus and related genera, and which can enhance our understanding of the phylogeny of this group as a whole. It will also be important to find and verify the status of additional host plants, and to search for additional Acanthiophilus species, which no doubt exist."
Morgulis and colleagues significantly advanced our understanding of the phylogeny of the genus Acanthiophilus. Additional research, particularly an analysis using molecular data, will further expand our knowledge of the phylogeny of this group, and could potentially add new insights into the intriguing biogeographical history of the genus.
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