Phlebotomine vectors can in some instances transmit only certain species of Leishmania. Comparison of a large number of vector/parasite pairs revealed that species-specific differences in vectorial competence were in every case directly correlated with the ability of promastigotes to attach to the sand-fly midgut, the variable outcomes of which were controlled by structural polymorphisms in the surface lipophosphoglycan (LPG) of the parasite. The ability of Phlebotomus papatasi to transmit only Leishmania major could be attributed to the unique, highly substituted nature of L. major LPG that provides for multiple terminally exposed beta-linked galactose residues for binding. While the relatively unsubstituted LPGs of other Leishmania species were unable to mediate promastigote attachment to P. papatasi, they could mediate binding to midguts of Phlebotomus argentipes, which was found to be a potentially competent vector for every Leishmania species examined. The data suggest that at least some phlebotomine vectors differ with respect to the parasite recognition sites which they express and that midgut adhesion is a sufficiently critical component of vectorial competence as to provide the evolutionary drive for LPG structural polymorphisms.