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The Dirty Truth About Mosquito Bites

The Dirty Truth About Mosquito Bites

Ugh, summer. Step outside for thirty seconds and a horde of mosquitoes descends to make you into dinner. But what exactly happens when a mosquito alights and takes a deep drink of you? Some intrepid researchers decided to check it out on the microscopic level, and what they found was actually pretty cool. Also gross, but cool.

You might think of the mouthparts of mosquitoes as a solid needle that penetrates the skin, hits a blood vessel and sets to work, but it turns out that the truth is more complicated. First of all, there are multiple parts involved, including two mandibles and two maxillae to help the mosquito penetrate the skin. Then, the insect uses the hypopharynx to push saliva into the body of the host, preventing clotting and limiting inflammation. The actual sucking involves the labrum, which can sometimes pull blood so vigorously that it ruptures the blood vessel, creating a small pool of blood that the mosquito will freely lap up.

If you think this is creepy and gross, wait until you see the mouthparts of a mosquito in action:

That little wriggling brown thing with attached filaments is the mouthparts of the mosquito, maneuvering for a blood vessel. As you can see in the video, mosquitoes can adjust the angle, bend, and wriggle to find a food source, and they’re also capable of pulling back and going in a different direction. In other words, rather than landing and getting one shot, they have some time to get into position.

This particular research was conducted as part of a study to understand how malaria is transmitted, with the ultimate goal of reducing the incidence of malaria in parts of the world where it’s endemic. None of the information in these videos provides direct clues on how to prevent malaria, but it does offer new data about how mosquitoes do their dirty work, and that information may be helpful in the long term. It’s certainly made for some truly fascinating, albeit deeply creepy when you realize what’s going on, videos.

The next time a mosquito lands on you and you move to brush it away, imagine what’s happening on a cellular level as its mouthparts push through your skin in search of a vessel, and marvel at the complexity of evolution. Mosquitoes have evolved to thrive alongside mammals of various sizes, using them as a steady food source on legs, and that’s pretty amazing. A tip of the hat to nature is definitely in order even though mosquitoes and other biting insects are obnoxious.

In case you’re wondering, these researchers weren’t quite daring enough to serve as their own test subjects, not least because they were using malarial mosquitoes for the experiment. Unfortunately, anesthetized mice were used, raising some tangled questions about the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in scientific research. Is it worth it if humans benefit? Is it never acceptable? Does it depend on the nature of the research and the conditions in the laboratory?


Photo credit: Filiford.

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8:16AM PDT on Aug 30, 2013


5:48AM PDT on Aug 27, 2013

Okay, all science debate aside: I am a nature-worshipping pagan, and even I am not marveling at the evolutionary complexity of mosquitoes. They're awful.

3:56PM PDT on Aug 21, 2013

I worked at the Mosquito Genetics Project at Notre Dame University. The only way to raise mosquitoes to study is to give them a blood diet. Females will not lay eggs without blood. The only safe way to feed them is to give mice a shot to knock them out and lay them on the screen of the cages. There is no other substitute for a blood diet as they will not take blood that is not from a live subject. If you want to study mosquitoes in order to eradicate disease, then mice are going to have to continue to be used.

11:03AM PDT on Aug 20, 2013

I'm so nauseated visualizing what's described here. I was already disgusted and irritated by these noisy, filthy blood suckers, but now it just makes me wanna go on a "kill spree". Urgh.

9:17AM PDT on Aug 20, 2013

Thank you!

9:30PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013


6:15PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

I don't really care how the mosquito bites me. I only care that it does. For some reason, my mother and sister were never bothered with mosquitos, but my father and I couldn't stay out back once it started to get dark. They had a feeding frenzy on us.

5:46PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013


5:25PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

interesting. thanks.

3:48PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Cats can definitely get heartworms. I gave my cat heartworm medicine just like I give it to my dogs. Never heard of a person getting them though.

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