If Timothy Winegard is correct, the deadliest predator our planet has ever seen is sitting on your leg right now.
Even if she’s not responsible for the demise of nearly half of all the people who’ve ever lived, as some believe, she certainly has a lot to answer for. And, she’s had a long time to practice her skills, more than fifty million years. If you were quick enough to grab her now and compare her to fossils from the Eocene, you’d not be able to tell them apart, except for the blood in her being yours, and soon her eggs’.
In fact, the two main types of mosquito living today, Anophelinae and Culicinae, went their separate ways around two-hundred million years ago, so these flies are extremely old. With age comes wisdom, of course, but also gradual refined evolution, to a point where a mosquito is really good at being a mosquito. One of those achievements, unfortunately, is the spread of disease.
Without scaring you, and I assume you have now slapped your leg to shoo the insect away, female mosquitoes can give you some quite nasty challenges. Viral ones, like yellow and dengue fever, and the infection known as chikungunya, as well as parasitic diseases like malaria, and such horrors as West Nile virus, Eastern equine, Western equine, Venezuelan equine, and St Louis encephalitis. They can also give you tularemia and zika, of course, and contribute to microcephaly and elephantiasis. And, their bites itch like hell.
If you do get one of these inconvenient death-nibbles, though, you’re in good company. By Winegard’s reckoning in his book The Mosquito, the female mosquito wiped-out one-third of all Christian Crusaders before they could even think of shouting deus vult at the infidels, most of the British invasion force in 1727 Cartagena, and the vast majority of Nelson’s troops in Nicaragua fifty years later. It also dispatched the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in 1658, Alexander III of Macedon, who wasn’t so Great at shaking off a fever, and nearly five-thousand Americans trying to avenge the explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba, in the late 1880s, compared to less than four-hundred who died of actual fighting in that Spanish-American War.
After so many years of devastation, however, there is now a new nymph on the block.
His name is OX5034, and he’s been genetically modified.
OX and one-and-one-half billion of his brethren will be released into the Florida Keys, who’s national bird is in fact the mosquito, to mate with females. Unfortunately for his female offspring, only the males will survive, and they don’t bite, thus reducing the danger to humans of those deadly mosquito-borne diseases.
With State and Federal approval, and a vigorous nod from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the launch is imminent. But some have their doubts that this is a good idea, particularly as the EPA doesn’t appear to have fully-explored potential outcomes, and so no-one really knows what exactly will happen when OX and his comrades hit the beaches.
Not being an expert on zoonoses, or zoology or biodiversity, I could be completely wrong, but it seems that if we eradicate female mosquitos in this way, we change the balance of our ecology, not least the ability of mosquitoes to mate and reproduce.
Yes, that mosquito on your leg is now on the back of your neck and enjoying a hearty breakfast, but she in turn is also a source of food for birds, other insects, and mammals.
And of course, we may start with mosquitoes but where do we end?
Lice, fleas and ticks can give you Lyme disease, plague, malaria, sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, and filariasis. You can get anthrax from the wool of domestic herbivores, avian influenza from waterbirds, herpes from macaques, rabies from dogs, campylobacteriosis and E.coli from animal feces of all sorts, cat scratch disease and toxoplasmosis from Fluffy, cryptococcosis from pigeons, and giardiasis, rabies, salmonellosis, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus from just about any of them.
Grab yourself some hantavirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis from mice, histoplasmosis from bats, leptospirosis from cattle and pigs, listeriosis from hot dogs, psittacosis from parrots, Q fever from sheep and goats, baylisascaris from raccoons, rat bite fever from rats, obviously, and ringworm and roundworm from just being a mammal in a world of other mammals.
And then there’s Covid-19, which seems to have begun as “a combination of genetic shuffling”, and now presents somewhat of a challenge to our human race.
We will always work to treat diseases, to eradicate pandemics, to make life more comfortable, but we must be absolutely sure when we play with genetics that our manipulation, and those mosquitoes, won’t come back to bite us.
She’s on your arm.