In Defense of the Mosquito: 10 Things to Know About Summer’s Biggest Annoyance

Mosquito image via Shutterstock

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of West Nile, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and maybe they don't really get a fair shake from us. Of over 3,000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom. While I swat at them as much as the next guy, I think maybe it's time we sit down and give skeeters a little credit for all the wonderful weirdness they’ve got going on.

1. They’re excellent bad weather flyers
The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled up raindrop, there’d be 2,375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do they do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. Last year, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. They’ve got a big family, and lots of relatives down south

Over 3,000 species of mosquitoes have been described around the world. At least 150 of those are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home, which makes the Lone Star State the mosquito capital of the USA.

3. Some of them are really dangerous...
The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria they transmit kills 2 million to 3 million people and infects another 200 million or more. They also spread other pathogens like yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus.

4. ...and some of them aren't
Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. Even the blood suckers don’t need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely off of nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is mostly plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins and nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. They’re more useful than you’d think
When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. They’re amazing hunters
Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70+ types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually - and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. They can be picky
If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes - either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. They have a heck of a kisser…
A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. …and some cool chemicals, too
The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitos' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. They can go out with a bang
Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk (you can see one guy try and fail here), but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown out back end.

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NOAA Photo Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
7 Impressive Animal Defense Mechanisms
NOAA Photo Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
NOAA Photo Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The deep-sea squid known as Octopoteuthis deletron has a startling defense mechanism: When threatened, the squid attacks its predator and then pulls away, breaking off the tip of its own arm and leaving it behind as a diversion. As the arm continues to glow and twitch, the squid makes its escape.

But this squid isn't the only creature with a bizarre tactic for keeping itself alive. Here are several other animals with impressive defense mechanisms.

1. THE LIZARD THAT SHOOTS BLOOD FROM ITS EYES

The Texas Horned Lizard is a scary-looking creature. Brown, plump and perfectly camouflaged in its native sandy environment, its first line of defense is its spiky demeanor. If the sharp spikes and horns don't ward off predators, the lizard steps it up a notch and squirts a well-aimed stream of blood out of its eyes. The stream of blood, which can go as far as 5 feet, is mixed with a foul-tasting chemical that wards off predators. But this odd weapon comes at a cost: The lizard may release one-third of its total blood supply this way, amounting to 2 percent of its body mass. Unfortunately, its population numbers are dropping thanks to a threat that won't retreat after a well-aimed squirt: habitat loss due to rapid urbanization in the Lone Star State. 

2. THE HAIRY FROG THAT BREAKS ITS OWN BONES

Trichobatrachus robustus, aka hairy or horror frog

Emőke Dénes, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

What if every time you felt threatened, your first and only method of defense was to break your own bones and use them for weapons? Meet the hairy frog, a Central African species. When breeding, the male frogs develop thin strands of skin along the sides of their bodies that resemble hair. In theory, these strands also allow the frogs to take in more oxygen while they watch over their eggs. But what's really compelling about this frog is its ability to crack its own toe bones and push them through their skin to form sharp claws, which are great for warding off would-be attackers.

While it's not completely clear what happens to the bones after the threat of attack subsides, researchers believe the bones slide back under the skin when the frog's muscles relax.

3. THE NEWT THAT TURNS ITS RIBS INTO SPIKES

spanish ribbed newt

The hairy frog isn't the only amphibian that uses its bones for weapons. When attacked, the Spanish ribbed newt shifts its ribs forward at an angle and pushes them through its stretched skin. The resulting effect is a row of spikes on either side of its body. Like the hairy frog, the newt has to force the bones through its skin every time it is attacked, but the mechanism seems to cause little or no harm to the creature. Maybe one day it'll get its own robot protector: A team of researchers at the the Swiss university EPFL created a robotic salamander inspired by the newt, which they called the Pleurobot (after its scientific name, Pleurodeles waltl).

4. THE TERMITE THAT BLOWS ITSELF UP

Talk about taking one for the team. When under attack, a species of termites found in the French Guiana rain forests sends older worker bugs on suicide missions to defend the whole colony. These older bugs, no longer as useful to the pack as they once were, come equipped with "explosive backpacks" that, over a lifetime, fill with toxic crystals produced by glands in the abdomen. When mixed with salivary gland secretions, these crystals create a toxic liquid that explodes on enemies, paralyzing them and killing the worker at the same time. These termites aren't alone among insects in using a suicidal defensive tactic: When faced with a threat, an ant found in Borneo expands its abdomen until it ruptures, shooting out a toxic liquid

5. THE FISH THAT SLIMES ITS ENEMIES

Hagfish are eel-shaped marine animals with the incredibly useful ability to slime their enemies. When threatened, the hagfish emit a slime from their pores that, when mixed with water, expands into a gelatinous goo that can either trap predators or suffocate them by clogging their gills. The video above shows a hagfish being attacked 14 separate times by sharks and other big fish, and coming out completely unharmed. Each predator took one bite before immediately spitting the hagfish out and swimming away, gagging. The best time to encounter a hagfish is probably after it's emptied its slime glands withstanding such an onslaught; the glands take three to four weeks to refill.

6. THE SEA CUCUMBER THAT SHOOTS ORGANS OUT OF ITS ANUS

sea cucumber on coral reef
iStock

Sea cucumbers can seem pretty boring. There are some 1250 known species of these sedentary creatures in the world, and many of them do indeed look like cucumbers. But when it comes to survival, things get interesting. Like starfish and sea urchins, sea cucumbers are echinoderms, and they can regenerate lost body parts if necessary. This comes in handy when they're threatened. The sea cucumber will expel its internal organs, which are sticky and sometimes contain a toxic chemical that can kill predators. They don't have much of a defense against pollution though, which is a problem, because they're superstar ocean-floor cleaners.

7. THE OPOSSUM THAT PLAYS DEAD

possum playing dead in the grass
Tony Alter, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

You can't do a roundup like this without at least mentioning the opossum. We typically refer to this creature's infamous defense mechanism as "playing dead," but there's actually nothing playful about it; the act is completely involuntary. Under intense fear, opossums fall into a comatose-like state that can last for hours, long enough to convince any predator that the opossum is already dead. Also unappetizing: Fear causes these animals to emit a corpse-like smell that only adds to their act. Thank the opossum for providing some defense for us too: They eat venomous snakes and ticks, gobbling up to 4000 insects a week.

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Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.03
10 Body-Snatching Parasites
Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.03
Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.03

There are a lot of parasites out there. Some estimates suggest that as many as half of all the species on earth live inside—and feed off—other species. One new study published online (which hasn't been peer reviewed yet) argues that the parasitoid wasps might be the largest single group of animals—a title generally thought to be held by beetles.

Practically every species has its own set of parasites, and even parasites have parasites. In many cases, a parasite's host is little more than a habitat where it can eat and breed. But some parasites have gone a step further, evolving ways to manipulate their hosts in ways that give the parasite a better shot at growing up and spreading its young far and wide. Their methods can be as deliciously gross as the worst imaginings of horror movie screenwriters. Here are 10 examples to inspire new terrors of the silver screen.

1. JEWEL WASP // AUSTRALIA, PACIFIC ISLANDS


The jewel wasp Ampulex compressa is iridescently beautiful, but it's a nightmare for the American cockroach. When a pregnant female wasp gets hold of a roach, she temporarily paralyzes its muscles with a sting, then threads her stinger up into the roach's brain, injecting a cocktail of chemicals that turn the roach into a zombie. The roach could move when the paralysis wears off, but now it doesn't want to. Instead, it allows the wasp to gently lead it by one antenna to her burrow, where she walls it in with one of her eggs. That egg will soon become a larvae that spends its first week on earth eating the living roach bit by bit before pupating and emerging as a wasp to continue the cycle.

2. NEMATOMORPH HAIRWORM // EUROPE

Everything seems normal for weeks after a long-horned grasshopper has drunk water containing the microscopic larvae of the hairworm Spinochordodes tellinii, but that changes as soon as the worm grows big enough to start yearning for a mate. That's when it secretes chemicals that change its host's brain chemistry, making deep water seem enticing to the insect. The grasshopper suddenly has a suicidal urge to take a long hop off a short pier, and as it drowns, the worm—now as much as three times as long as the insect it lived in—squeezes out of its host and swims off to find a mate. Other hairworm species prefer praying mantises or spiders as hosts, but it's the same endgame for them all.

3. PARASITIC BARNACLE // MARINE COASTS

Sacculina carcini
John Aplessed, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A female Sacculina carcini starts its life like any other barnacle—as a tiny planktonic baby floating free in the ocean. But unlike your average barnacle, when she drifts onto a crab she doesn't just settle down and become a warty bump riding on its shell. Instead, she burrows into the crab and grows until she infiltrates every crevice of the crab's body. This can take years, but eventually she's big enough to inflate her bulbous reproductive structures through the crab's abdomen so microscopic males of her species can fertilize her eggs. Once that happens, her crabby host stops molting and growing; all it does is eat and take care of its parasite. Her babies are incubated inside the crab's abdomen, and since part of her is inside the crab's brain by now, she also hijacks its egg-caring behaviors—even male crabs nurture them—to aerate and disperse thousands of her own future mind-controlling brood.

4. ICHNEUMOID WASP // NORTH AMERICA

ichneumoid wasp
MirandaKate, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A female ichneumoid wasp Campoletis sonorensis sneaking up on a grazing caterpillar isn't looking for a meal for herself—she's shopping for a nose-to-tail larder for her young. The wasp injects one or two fertilized eggs under the caterpillar's skin, and just for good measure, squirts in a virus that will keep the caterpillar's immune system from attacking the invaders. When she flies away, the caterpillar goes right back to eating, but it's a dead grub walking: In a few days, the wormlike wasp larvae hatch inside the caterpillar. They'll spend a couple of weeks munching away at its guts until they grow large enough to burst through its body wall. Then, they spin cocoons—often beside or on the dead body of their host—and pupate into another generation of chest-busting parasitoids (which, unlike most parasites, always kill their hosts).

5. GREEN-BANDED BROODSAC FLATWORM // EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA

A land snail's eyestalks are normally a pretty drab affair, but that all changes if the snail licks up bird droppings infected with larvae from the flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum. The baby worms move into the snail's digestive gland, forming an asexual colony that can eventually make up a quarter of the snail's mass. As the colony matures, it starts packing members into bright green, squirming brood sacs that writhe up into the snail's eyestalks, swelling them into fat approximations of wriggling caterpillars. If that's not enough to grab a hungry bird's attention, those pulsing, writhing brood sacs can also break through the snail's body wall and crawl off to mimic a juicy grub on their own.

6. PHRONIMA AMPHIPOD // DEEP OCEAN WORLDWIDE


Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The deep-sea amphipod genus Phronima is a literal body-snatcher. This parasitoid captures gelatinous salps—jet-propelled, filter-feeding planktonic animals that are closely related to vertebrates—and hollows them out with jaws and claws, consuming the salp's brain, gills, stomach, and muscles, and scraping its inner walls smooth. The salp body—technically still living—becomes a barrel-shaped, ocean-going home that the amphipod can maneuver like a miniature submarine. It might eventually be a full house, too—female Phronima keep their young in the barrel and care for them until they've grown.

7. RIBEIROIAN TREMATODE FLATWORM // NORTH AMERICA

deformed pacific chorus frog infected with ribeiroia ondatrae parasite
Brett A. Goodman, Pieter T. J. Johnson, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

The horror starts when larvae of the parasitic flatworm Ribeiroia ondatrae leave the snail they used as a nursery and burrow into the tail of a bullfrog tadpole. When the tadpole metamorphoses into an adult frog—a period of time that varies between species—the flatworms form cysts around its developing legs, disrupting their growth in ways that damage or double them. The crippled, flatworm-infested frog can't jump away from predatory birds like herons, which gobble them up. The flatworm then spreads to new waterways wherever the bird poops.

8. GALL WASP // WORLDWIDE

gall wasp eggs
Justin 0 of 0, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Not even plants are safe from parasitism. Females of Cynipidae, the family of gall wasps, lay their eggs inside leaves or under bark, and their larvae make the plant cells surrounding them grow faster than they would normally, effectively forcing the plant to grow them a house. Weird, nonleafy shapes rise up out of the plant, filled with juicy nutritious tissues that feed the wasp larvae and surrounded by tough woody walls that protect it until it becomes an adult (more than a year in some species) and chews its way out of its safe space.

9. ENTOMOPATHOGENIC FUNGUS // NORTH AMERICA

goldenrod beetle infected by mind-controlling E. lampyridarum fungus
Steinkraus et al. in Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, 2017

Goldenrod soldier beetles depend on the family of flowering plants commonly known as asters, which includes goldenrods and daisies. The beetles eat the plants' pollen and mate in their shade. But if a beetle gets infected with the fungus Eryniopsis lampyridarum, it climbs up an aster's stem, clenches the base of a flower with its mandibles, and dies. Within a day, the fungus forces the dead beetle's wings open to expose its spores, which rain down on the hapless beetles below.

10. OPECOELID TREMATODE FLATWORM // PACIFIC MARINE REEFS

Coral colony infected by trematode Podocotyloides stenometra
Alamy

The tiny polyps that build stony corals are usually an inconspicuous brown. But that changes whenever a polyp inadvertently grabs a young Podocotyloides stenometra flatworm for a meal. Somehow, the trematode worm doesn't get digested—instead, it invades the polyp's tentacles, swelling them and turning them bright pink. The color is a bright billboard advertising deliciousness to butterflyfish on the reef, who eat the flashy polyps and spread the worm to other corals across the reef.

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