I welcomed the New Year with a case of malaria, a direct result of spending weeks at a time in small Amazonian villages where Anopheles mosquitoes and the malaria they carry are a fact of life. A very typical case, I experienced a regular cycle of high fever, intense chills and body aches (not unlike a very intense flu), and was sick or recovering for several weeks. I actually considered myself quite fortunate: the people who regularly get malaria in the villages where we work do not always have access to proper treatment, and certain types and untreated malaria often turns deadly.
The microscopic parasites that do the damage are only able to do so via mosquitoes. And it is at mosquitoes that I tend to direct my frustration and anger: the buzzing, biting buggers deserve it and more. Though many conservationists will extol the intrinsic value of every organism (as I am inclined to do), in my feverish state it was hard to imagine any such intrinsic value being attributed to mosquitoes. As I spent my days ruing the very existence of mosquitoes, which consistently top lists of the world’s deadliest animals due to their role in spreading various deadly diseases, I found myself pondering the age-old question of “What good are mosquitoes, anyway?”
As it turns out, a lot of good! Mosquitoes, as with many insects, are an important food source for birds, bats, amphibians, other insects, and even (in larval form) fish. Their larva help breakdown detritus in streams, keeping algae levels down and the water clean. Mosquitoes are also an important pollinator for a diverse array of plant species, including some crop plants. And the list goes on: mosquitoes play several key roles in several ecosystems. The bulk of the 3,500(!) known species of mosquito don’t even bother humans; their bad reputation comes from a few hundred.
But, I don’t know if I’m ready to let them off the hook yet. Even given these important roles, some scientists (and now I) have questioned whether or not other insects would fill those roles if, say, humans managed to get rid of them all.
Well, maybe other insects could, but it’s the classic airplane wing rivet analogy: losing any one of the hundreds of rivets on an airplane wing will not cause the wing to tear apart. Losing two rivets may not do it, but the more rivets lost, the greater the risk. And with ecosystem functioning, losing multiple rivets is not worth risking. Even if they’re just mosquitoes. Especially when you consider what it would take to actually attempt to eradicate the pesky biters, namely a lot of indiscriminate chemicals affecting all kinds of insects and other environmental factors. We couldn’t remove that rivet without removing a bunch of others and maybe setting the engine on fire to boot. So though it may be exciting to imagine, a world without mosquitoes is not really feasible.
The best I can do is keep myself out of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes’ way (and all others, for that matter), make myself as unattractive to them as possible, and hope my preventative malaria medicine is more effective the next time. (Even preventative medicines are no guarantee, especially in areas where drug resistance may be developing.) And when I do see one of those buzzing, biting buggers, I can hope that they will soon play one of their valuable roles in the ecosystem…and be promptly eaten by a passing bird.
Christa Horn is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, http://blog.sandiegozooglobal.org/2014/01/21/green-thumbs-offer-helping-hands/”>Green Thumbs Offer Helping Hands.