Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mosquitoes and the Food Chain

I spend considerable time in Northwest Wyoming where growing populations of grizzlies and black bears remind me humans are not the dominant species in the Greater Yellowstone Eco-system. Every year a hiker or hunter runs into a creature that thinks Homo sapiens are a food source. Prepared individuals have their bear spray or weapon close at hand to fend off such unwanted attention. Unfortunately, locals tell stories about those surprised by these beasts who don’t survive the encounter. Such tales set a nervous person on edge, but recent news reports about insect-borne damage and disease make me realize these mammals aren’t humans’ worst nightmare.

It’s bad enough to think about a colony of termites silently chomping their way through the wood supports in your home, wreaking havoc. I know an individual who bought an older residence and began remodeling only to discover millions of these tiny creatures digested his studs and supports into a holey mess. Even if homeowners find these insects in time to prevent massive structural damage, they’ll pay a pretty penny to destroy the colony and then fund maintenance treatments to keep future invaders away forever.

In another creepy-crawly story, a family we know recently discovered bed bugs hitchhiked home with them from their workplace. Fortunately, they caught the infestation early, but again it was a financial drain to wipe out these uninvited bloodsuckers. Just thinking about them makes me itch so I’m sure those fighting them directly suffered worse mental tortures.

While the mammals and bugs I’ve mentioned inflict horrific damage, newspaper stories from around the world inform us that nasty as they are these aren’t our worst fears. Aedes mosquitoes, known in the past because they transmit yellow fever, also carry the Zika virus and produce nearly as many headlines as current political candidates do. Scientists first identified this disease in the Zika Forest in Uganda in the 1940s. Since then, it has spread to multiple continents, most recently including South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Southern America is on the radar.

In most cases, this disease related to dengue fever and West Nile virus causes unremarkable symptoms such as mild headaches, joint pains, and reddened eyes. In many cases, victims don’t even know they contracted it, or if they do, a Tylenol handles their complaints. In worst-case scenarios, the pathogen passes through a mother’s placenta to her fetus, causing microcephaly, a condition resulting in intellectual and motor disabilities. Concerns about this life-altering issue are affecting fertile women’s travel plans and attendance at the upcoming summer Olympics in Brazil.

When I read about young mothers delivering infants affected by this virus, I realize my fear of bears is over-rated. After all, in bear country, I have control. I carry pepper spray any time I’m in their territory and know if I use it correctly, the spritzed critter will race away. At this point, humans can also manage termite and bedbug infestations even if it puts a whammy on bank accounts and sets imaginations on overdrive.

Unfortunately, civilization hasn’t won the mosquito wars. We still battle malaria and yellow fever, and now we know these winged destroyers transfer a virus that humans can pass to their unborn with disastrous results. It’s beyond humbling to acknowledge something as small as a mosquito owns the top of the food chain.

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