Fleas (Siphonaptera) are medically important blood-feeding insects responsible for spreading pathogens such as plague, murine typhus, and myxomatosis. The peculiar morphology of fleas resulting from their specialised ectoparasitic lifestyle has meant that the phylogenetic position of this diverse and medically important group has remained one of the most persistent problems in insect evolution. Here we test competing hypotheses on the contentious evolutionary relationships of fleas and antliophoran insects using the largest molecular dataset available to date consisting of over 1,400 protein-coding genes, and a smaller mitogenome and Sanger sequence alignment of 16 genes. By removing ambiguously aligned sequence regions and using site-heterogeneous models, we consistently recover fleas nested within scorpionflies (Mecoptera) as sister to the relictual southern hemisphere family Nannochoristidae. Topology tests accounting for compositional heterogeneity strongly favour the proposed topology over previous hypotheses of antliophoran relationships. This clade is diagnosed by shared morphological characters of the head and sperm pump. Fleas may no longer be regarded as a separate insect order and we propose that Siphonaptera should be treated as an infraorder within Mecoptera, reducing the number of extant holometabolan insect orders to ten.
- MSci Palaeontology and Evolution
- phylogenetic position