A World Without Mosquitoes

NEWS FEATURE NATURE|Vol 466|22 July 2010 Vol A WORLD WITHOUT MOSQUITOES Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn’t it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang. wIld wonders of europe/sMIt/nAturepl.coM Arctic pests Wish you were gone: mosquito clouds can be thick enough to choke caribou in the Arctic. 432 Elimination of mosquitoes might make the biggest ecological difference in the Arctic tundra, home to mosquito species including Aedes imp
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  E  very day, Jittawadee Murphy unlocks a hot, pad-locked room at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, to a swarm of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (  Anopheles stephensi ).She gives millions of larvae a diet of ground-up fish food,and offers the gravid females blood to suck from the bellies o unconscious mice — they drain 24 o the rodents a month.Murphy has been studying mosquitoes or 20 years, workingon ways to limit the spread o the parasites they carry. Still, she says, she would rather they were wiped off the Earth. That sentiment is widely shared. Malaria infects some 247 million people worldwide each year, and kills nearly onemillion. Mosquitoes cause a huge urther medical and inan-cial burden by spreading yellow ever, dengue ever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and WestNile virus. Then there’s the pest factor: they form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou in Alaska and now, as theirnumbers reach a seasonal peak, their proboscises are plunged into human flesh across the Northern Hemisphere.So what would happen if there were none? Would anyone or anything miss them? Nature put this question to scientistswho explore aspects of mosquito biology and ecology, and unearthed some surprising answers. There are 3,500 named species of mosquito, of which only a couple of hundred bite or bother humans.They live on almost every continent and habitat, and serve important functions in numerous ecosystems. “Mosquitoes havebeen on Earth or more than 100 million years,” says Murphy, “and they have co-evolved withso many species along the way.” Wiping out a speciesof mosquito could leave a predator without prey, ora plant without a pollinator. And exploring a world without mosquitoes is more than an exercise in imagina- tion: intense efforts are under way to develop methods that might rid the world o the most pernicious, disease-carrying species (see ‘War against the winged’). Yet in many cases, scientists acknowledge that the ecologi-cal scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as theniche was filled by other organisms. Life would continue as before — or even better. When it comes to the major disease  vectors, “it’s difficult to see what the downside would be toremoval, except for collateral damage”, says insect ecologist Steven Juliano, o Illinois State University in Normal. A worldwithout mosquitoes would be “more secure or us”, says medi-cal entomologist Carlos Brisola Marcondes rom the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. “The elimination of   Anopheles would be very significant for mankind.”  Arctic pests Elimination o mosquitoes might make the biggest ecological difference in the Arctic tundra, home to mosquito species including  Aedes impiger  and  Aedes nigripes . Eggs laid by the insects hatch the next year ater the snow melts, and develop-ment to adults takes only 3–4 weeks. From northern Canadato Russia, there is a brie period in which they are extraordi-narily abundant, in some areas orming thick clouds. “That’s an exceptionally rare situation worldwide,” says entomolo-gist Daniel Strickman, programme leader for medical andurban entomology at the US Department of Agriculture inBeltsville, Maryland. “There is no other place in the world where they are that much biomass.” Views differ on what would happen if that biomass vanished. Bruce Harrison, an entomologist at the North Carolina Department o Environment and Natural Resources in Winston-Salem estimates that the number of migratory birds that nest in the tundra could drop by more than 50% without mosquitoes to eat. Other researchers disagree. Cathy Curby, a wildlie biologist at the US Fish and Wildlie Service A WORLD WITHOUT MOSQUITOES Eradicating any organism would haveserious consequences for ecosystems— wouldn’t it? Not when it comes tomosquitoes, finds Janet Fang .     M .    B    o    w    l    e    r    A    M    A    z    o    n  -    I    M    A    g    e    s    /    A    l    A    M    y    w    I    l    d    w    o    n    d    e    r    s    o    f    e    u    r    o    p    e    /    s    M    I    t    /    n    A    t    u    r    e    p    l .    c    o    M Wish you were gone: mosquito clouds can be thick enough to choke caribou in the Arctic. 432 Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 432   NATURE | Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 NEWS FEATURE © 20 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved10  in Fairbanks, Alaska, says that Arctic mosquitoes don’t showup in bird stomach samples in high numbers, and that midges are a more important source of food. “We (as humans) may  overestimate the number o mosquitoes in the Arctic because they are selectively attracted to us,” she says. Mosquitoes consume up to 300 millilitres of blood a day from each animal in a caribou herd, which are thought to select paths acing into the wind to escape the swarm. A smallchange in path can have major consequences in an Arctic val- ley through which thousands of caribou migrate, tramplingthe ground, eating lichens, transporting nutrients, feeding wolves, and generally altering the ecology. Taken all together,then, mosquitoes would be missed in the Arctic — but is the same true elsewhere? Food on the wing “Mosquitoes are delectable things to eat and they’re easy to catch,” says aquatic entomologist Richard Merritt, at Michi-gan State University in East Lansing. In the absence of their larvae, hundreds o species o ish would have to change their diet to survive. “This may sound simple, but traits such as eeding behaviour are deeply imprinted, genetically, in thoseish,” says Harrison. The mosquitoish ( Gambusia affinis ), or example, is a specialized predator — so effective at killingmosquitoes that it is stocked in rice fields and swimmingpools as pest control — that could go extinct. And the loss of these or other fish could have major effects up and downthe food chain. Many species o insect, spider, salamander, lizard and rogwould also lose a primary ood source. In one study published last month, researchers tracked insect-eating house martins at a park in Camargue, France, after the area was sprayedwith a microbial mosquito-control agent 1 . They found that the birds produced on average two chicks per nest ater spray- ing, compared with three for birds at control sites. Most mosquito-eating birds would probably switch toother insects that, post-mosquitoes, might emerge in largenumbers to take their place. Other insectivores might notmiss them at all: bats feed mostly on moths, and less than2% of their gut content is mosquitoes. “If you’re expendingenergy,” says medical entomologist Janet McAllister of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado, “are you going to eat the 22-ounce filet-mignon moth or the 6-ounce hamburger mosquito?” With many options on the menu, it seems that most insect- eaters would not go hungry in a mosquito-free world. Thereis not enough evidence of ecosystem disruption here to givethe eradicators pause for thought. At your service As larvae, mosquitoes make up substantial biomass in aquaticecosystems globally. They abound in bodies o water ranging from ephemeral ponds to tree holes 2 to old tyres, and the density o larvae on fooded plains can be so high that theirwrithing sends out ripples across the surace. They eed on decaying leaves, organic detritus and microorganisms. The question is whether, without mosquitoes, other ilter eeders would step in. “Lots of organisms process detritus. Mosqui- toes aren’t the only ones involved or the most important,”says Juliano. “If you pop one rivet out of an airplane’s wing, it’s unlikely that the plane will cease to fly.” The effects might depend on the body of water inquestion. Mosquito larvae are important members of the tight-knit communities in the 25–100-millilitre pools inside pitcher plants 3,4 ( Sarracenia purpurea ) on the east coast of North America. Species of mosquito ( Wyeomyia smithii )and midge (  Metriocnemus knabi ) are the only insects that live there, along with microorganisms such as rotiers, bacte-ria and protozoa. When other insects drown in the water, themidges chew up their carcasses and the mosquito larvae eed on the waste products, making nutrients such as nitrogenavailable for the plant. In this case, eliminating mosquitoes might affect plant growth.In 1974, ecologist John Addicott, now at the University of  Calgary in Alberta, Canada, published indings on the pred- ator and prey structure within pitcher plants, noting moreprotozoan diversity in the presence of mosquito larvae 5 . He proposed that as the larvae eed, they keep down the numbers of the dominant species of protozoa, letting others persist. The broader consequences for the plant are not known. A stronger argument for keeping mosquitoes might befound if they provide ‘ecosystem services’ — the benefits that humans derive rom nature. Evolutionary ecologist DinaFonseca at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, points as a comparison to the biting midges of the family  Ceratopogonidae, sometimes known as no-see-ums. “People being bitten by no-see-ums or being infected through them with viruses, protozoa and ilarial worms would love to eradi- cate them,” she says. But because some ceratopogonids are pollinators o tropical crops such as cacao, “that would result in a world without chocolate”. Without mosquitoes, thousands o plant species would lose a group of pollinators. Adults depend on nectar for energy  (only emales o some species need a meal o blood to get the proteins necessary to lay eggs). Yet McAllister says that theirpollination isn’t crucial for crops on which humans depend. “I there was a beneit to having them around, we would have found a way to exploit them,” she says. “We haven’t wanted anything from mosquitoes except for them to go away.” “If there was abenefit to havingthem around,we would havefound a way toexploit them. Wehaven’t wantedanything frommosquitoesexcept for themto go away.” Mosquito larvae form a substantial part of the biomass in water pools worldwide.     M .    &    p .    f    o    g    d    e    n    /    M    I    n    d    e    n    p    I    c    t    u    r    e    s    /    f    l    p    A 433 Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 433   NATURE | Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 NEWS FEATURE © 20 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved10  Hma have mae mayoee, i o aay eeive,eo o eimiae moqioe.the moe e aemie he eaiaio amaiaai  Aedes aegypti i he eay1900, hih eieve yeo eveeoh o ao he omeioo he paama caa; a hee o he aviie pai geeo i Bazi o he maaia veo  Anopheles gambiae by 1940.Aiaio o he aiie ddtaoe he uie sae o beeae ee o maaia i 1949.B he hemia aye heae bae i may oie o.“we a’ mo hoe o-o,miiay-ye eo oay,” ayroe nai, a eomooi a hecee o dieae coo apeveio i fo coi, cooao.“A e o’ have ddt ay moe.I ame ih a o o baae ba a oai o omoqio eio.”Moqio oo i e-oxi hemia i key o keeihe ie i foia a a oohea Aia a lai Ameiaa oeabe eve. woiemaaia oo i 2010 eqieabo us$1,880 miio oioo eia ayi a$2,090 miio o ieiia e.“I’ a omiae bie,a ha’ hy e i havemoqioe,” nai ay. “they’eo oi ayhee.”reeahe ae eveoiaeaive moqio-oomeho; ome ae oie beo. RNA interference ● rnA-bae ieiie kiemae  A. aegypti by omoie iie 6 . “I baiay e hemoqio o o ki ie,” aysao coe, ieo o he usAme foe pe MaaemeBoa, wahio dc. ● fomaio o ye eveoe oay i i ae qaiie. Male sterilization ● Ioe i ae-eohmbe, eie mae a oeoio. se om eeeaiae i he uie saei he eay 1980 i hi ay:iaiae ae e io eiemae ha ee eeae i heeie be ie o o exiee. ● Ha’ bee iey ie eeo moqioe. Improved chemicals ● Moqioe ae beomieia o e aiie,hih ae he evo yeahe ae eeki aeih e mehaim, iiaa o h a ea oi. ● Bai eeah o be oe o iomo a moe o aio. Mosquito traps ● I 2003,  Aedes taeniorhynchus  a moy eimiae om aia i foia by eeahe ahe us deame o Aie,i a ha eeae aboioxie o e moqioe. ● goo o ae o maia, b obaby o eaibeo a ae ae. J.F. war aaint the ine Ultimately, there seem to be ew things that mosquitoes do that other organisms can’t do just as well — except perhaps or one. They are lethally eicient at sucking blood rom oneindividual and mainlining it into another, providing an ideal route for the spread of pathogenic microbes.“The ecological effect of eliminating harmful mosquitoes is that you have more people. That’s the consequence,” saysStrickman. Many lives would be saved; many more would no longer be sapped by disease. Countries reed o their high malaria burden, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, mightrecover the 1.3% of growth in gross domestic product thatthe World Health Organization estimates they are cost by  the disease each year, potentially accelerating their develop- ment. There would be “less burden on the health system and hospitals, redirection of public-health expenditure for vec- tor-borne diseases control to other priority health issues, less absenteeism from schools”, says Jeffrey Hii, malaria scientistfor the World Health Organization in Manila. Phil Lounibos, an ecologist at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach says that “eliminating mosquitoes would temporarily relieve humansuffering”. His work suggests that efforts toeradicate one vector specieswould be futile, as its niche wouldquickly be filled by another.His team collected femaleyellow-fever mosquitoes (  Aedesaegypti ) from scrap yards in Florida,and found that some had been insemi-nated by Asian tiger mosquitoes (  Aedesalbopictus ), which carry multiple human diseases. Theinsemination sterilizes the female yellow-fever mosquitoes — showing how one insect can overtake another. Given the huge humanitarian and economic conse-quences of mosquito-spread disease, few scientists wouldsuggest that the costs of an increased human populationwould outweigh the benefits of a healthier one. And the ‘collateral damage’ elt elsewhere in ecosystems doesn’t buy  much sympathy either. The romantic notion of every crea- ture having a vital place in nature may not be enough to plead the mosquito’s case. It is the limitations of mosquito-killing methods, not the limitations of intent, that make a world without mosquitoes unlikely. And so, while humans inadvertently drive beneicial spe-cies, rom tuna to corals, to the edge o extinction, their besteorts can’t seriously threaten an insect with ew redeeming features. “They don’t occupy an unassailable niche in the environment,” says entomologist Joe Conlon, o the Ameri- can Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida. “I we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they  are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.” ■ Janet Fang is an intern in Nature ’s Washington DC office. 1. pouin, B., leebvre, g. & pa, l.  J. Appl. Ecol.   47, 884–889 (2010).2. dauherty, M. p. & Juiano, s. A.  Am. Midl. Nat.   150, 181–184 (2003).3. dauherty, M. p., Ato, B. w. & Juiano, s. A.  J. Med. Entomol.   37, 364–372(2000).4. Hear, s. B. Ecology   75, 1647–1660 (1994).5. Aiott, J. f. Ecology   55, 475–492 (1974).6. prieon, J. w., zhao, l., Bene, J. J., strikman, d. A., cark, g. g. &linthium, K. J.  J. Med. Entomol.   45, 414–420 (2008).     d .    w    y    l    I    e    /    M    A    g    n    u    M    p    H    o    t    o    s    d .    A    l    l    e    n    /    I    s    t    o    c    K    p    H    o    t    o .    c    o    M Battle to the death: fumigating the streets of Calcutta, India. 434 Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 434   NATURE | Vol 466 | 22 July 2010 NEWS FEATURE © 20 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved10
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