The madness of an aspirant conservation biologist.
Published: Jul 31, 2016Mosquitoes: these small biting flies can be so annoying, they can ruin your day out or worse, end a penguin’s life.
Not that long ago Living Coasts faced the sad loss of some adorable penguins because they were affected by avian malaria. It’s a disease transmitted by mosquitoes which seems resistant to medical treatment in some species of birds. But are our penguins still in danger?
Since that episode, Living Coasts has adopted several systems to deter mosquitoes, including citronella sprays, specially-made fans and aromatic plants. The aim of my project is evaluate the efficiency of these deterrent practices, ensuring that no mosquitoes are buzzing around the penguins any longer.
Four insect traps have been set in four different areas at Living Coasts - you might even be able to spot some of them. They consist of a vortex that, in combination with a light, attracts small flies into a container. The trap is left on overnight and emptied the day after. Insects are caught also by using homemade traps, some of which need only a bowl of water and few drops of a liquid detergent; a good tip for anyone who is planning a journey to a hot country!
The traps will be left on and constantly checked till mid-August, hopefully to find a correlation between temperature, humidity and mosquito abundance. Unfortunately, many other insects are caught in the process, even if a small selection is allowed by the size of the trap. We believe that their sacrifice will be worth it to ensure a long and healthy life for our birds.
The samples, once collected, are analysed in a laboratory using a microscope, an identification handbook and the opinion of expert entomologists. The process of identification is challenging but interesting and rewarding. I could have never imagined how beautiful some insects are when observed in their smallest details. Midges are found in the highest numbers. The moths, with their spiral tongues and their hairy wings are definitely my favourites, but the crane flies deserve attention too, similar to mosquitoes but bigger and harmless and with a “V” on their thorax.
No traces of mosquitoes so far; they are probably waiting for the right temperatures. When it gets hot, animals sweat more and become much more attractive and appetizing. It seems indeed that the female mosquitoes, the only ones that bite, are strongly attracted by some substances, such as ammonia and lactic acid, which are released by sweating. Also, let’s not forget their passion for CO2 – they are attracted to every breath an animal takes!
I made a trap at home using yeast, sugar and water - the CO2 produced attracts the mosquitos. Sometimes I try to catch some mosquitoes myself, with forceps, butterfly nets, insect aspirator and tea strainers. I enjoy it, but it’s in those moments I think that this must be the madness of an aspirant conservation biologist…
Claudia Seminara - zoo conservation biology student at Plymouth University.