Why mosquitoes? Of all the amazing and beautiful rain forest animals to study, why would anyone want to work with this lowly, annoying bug that drives us crazy while sitting on porches on summer evenings? They spread disease, too. Why would anyone want to mess with that?
True. Mosquitoes can spread disease. That is itself a reason to study them. They have been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries and, sadly, continue to be responsible for millions today, mainly in the world’s tropical zones. Malaria alone causes nearly one million deaths each year.
As a student of biology, I have learned through my courses that the world’s “maneaters” and “creepy crawlies” often get a biased treatment from those that may not be so familiar with them. I hope to change that perspective a little bit. Yes…even the “lowly” mosquito gets a little love here.
I remember when it surprised me to learn that not all mosquitoes suck blood. Both males and females feed on plant juices and nectar. Given that they feed on nectar, they act as pollinators. Some may not feed at all. It is the female that takes in blood, and she does this to lay eggs. Blood provides iron and protein, which allows her to lay a batch of eggs larger than what would otherwise be possible on a diet of nectar alone. Of course, being a bloodsucker has its drawbacks – Bzzzz…SLAP! –, and many species of mosquito don’t take in blood at all. The mosquito genus Toxorhynchites includes unusually large mosquito species – none of which suck blood. Their larvae are actually predatory (unusual for mosquito larvae) and feed on other mosquito larvae, earning them the nickname, “mosquito hawk.” In fact, this behavior of mosquito larvae-eating has earned them the honor of being introduced into regions where the disease-carrying species, Aedes aegypti, lives.
My project asks two questions: What species are there? Where are they going? The first part is pretty straightforward, as I collect specimens around CICRA to get an idea of what mosquito diversity is in this area. So far, much of the diversity information comes from the areas around Iquitos, Peru, a city located in the northeastern section of the country. Being located in the southeastern portion of the country, CICRA is a good location to sample the diversity at the opposite end.
The “Where are they going?” portion will be tackled at the KU Natural History Museum after the specimens are identified and mounted for examination. All life forms require certain biological parameters for them to thrive (ie. temperature, rainfall, soil content, etc.) and the regions where these parameters exist can be mapped. This provides a picture of potential habitats for any species. We can then track how these parameters change in response to things like climate shifts and urbanization, and therefore the change in a species distribution. If we know that areas of a wet habitat will become dry in response to climate change, for example, we can track the potential shift in distribution of a species that requires a wet environment. As portions of the rain forest become urbanized – such as by the construction of the transatlantic highway – it affects the distributions of its inhabitants. This has additional consequences to human health in the case of disease-carrying mosquitoes, as an increased human presence means more opportunities for infection and for outbreaks to occur. Such outbreaks of diseases like yellow fever and malaria (mosquito-borne diseases once eradicated from Peru) have sprung up in recent years. These are reemerging diseases.
Just prior to leaving for Peru, I was told of the exceptional cuisine that Lima had to offer. Before, I learned about cuy (pronounced “coo-ee”) – guinea pig. I imagined it as the staple dish that would be on the menu of every high-end Peruvian restaurant. It’s apparently not that meal and is, in fact, an Andean animal and is served in restaurants nearer the mountains. Instead, I’ve found that there are a lot of other amazing tastes this country has to offer.
Only a few blocks from our hostel, the shopping/eating plaza called Larco Mar gave us our first taste of Peru. We ate at a restaurant called Mangos, a buffet-style restaurant our tour guide, Luis, took us to. Among the favorites was ceviche. It is essentially chopped fish marinated in lime. We also sampled a variety of potatoes (potatoes were domesticated in Peru) and other foods. Many of us tried chicha morada – a purple drink that is perhaps best described as a slightly carbonated grape juice that tastes like a cross between grape jelly beans and cinnamon chewing gum.
The following night, we enjoyed dinner at Tanta. Some tastes of the variety of foods we sampled are worth noting. Lucuma is a Peruvian drink that is best described as looking like beaten egg yolks, and tasting like a blend of egg nog and guava juice. Chirimoya, another Peruvian juice, looks like milk and tastes like the pinkish, warm milk left in a bowl of fruit loops, sopping up the cereal’s sugary flavor for about half an hour. The beef hearts were quite tasty – tasting just like “normal” beef and having a slightly chewier texture.
Joe, Reed, and I returned to Larcomar for lunch on one of our exploratory walks around Lima. We craved "chifa" - the Peruvian version of Chinese food. When Chinese immigrants came to Peru in the 19th century, they had to improvise and use Peruvian ingredients instead of their traditional ingredients for their food. Instead, we were coaxed into a place that had some amazing seafood. I suppose it makes sense that Lima, a city on the coast of a rich section of the Pacific Ocean (thanks to nutrients brought up from the cold Humboldt Current) would serve up top-notch tastes from the sea. Even Joe, who has had unfavorable experiences with seafood, was impressed. He could only take so much, though, so he let me finish off the octopus and squid.
So far, the tastes have been great. Still, I don’t want to leave here without trying cuy. There’s still plenty of time. Stay tuned for updates as I feel I will explore more amazing tastes before I finally get to try my first cuy.
I used to be terrified of bees and wasps. If I was playing in the yard and I saw a wasp in the neighbor’s bushes, I would run inside. And yet, now I am considering a career in entomology. Quite a lot has changed between my childhood fears and now. A lot had to be overcome to go on this trip, hiking into thick rain forest brush and trees. I remember once screaming at the top of my lungs at what I thought was something with a stinger, which turned out to be a crane fly, a fly that many call a giant mosquito but is harmless. People have traumatic experiences that can potentially haunt them for the rest of their lives. Others acquire fears as children after watching how adults react to their own terrors. Once the fear is established, a person can react in many ways. One is to prevent the exposure from ever happening again, retaining the fear forever. A second option is to stop and think about whatever the fear is, assess what triggered it (such as whether it was acquired from watching someone else’s unfortunate experience), and decide to learn more about what scares them rather than continue to be afraid.
Yesterday, I walked through dense rain forest, certainly a place with dangerous snakes, africanized bees (more commonly known as killer bees) and scores of aggressive, biting and stinging ants. I was on my guard, of course, but was able to walk comfortably because of the knowledge that none of the creepy crawly critters in the jungle were out to get me. They just do their thing like any one of us. Just like us, these animals will defend themselves when threatened, which is why we should be careful when we’re in their territory. I don’t dare intend to say that anyone wandering into these territories can afford to be complacent, but a little knowledge about how these animals live and what they want to stay away from goes a long way. Snakes, spiders, bees, nasty tropical ants…none of them are out to get us. They just want to carry on with their lives.