Mosquito 101

So, there are these two mosquitoes in Texas, and they’re arguing over a guy they just killed. One thinks they should drain him of blood right where he lays. The other recommends picking him up and flying him inside his house before sucking him dry. The first mosquito asks why. “Because,” the more cautious mosquito replies, “if we leave him out here, the really big mosquitoes will take him away from us.”

Okay, so perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. Nature has yet to devise a mosquito that can carry a grown man from place to place, though it may seem evolution is tending in that direction. Mosquitoes seldom grow longer than about half an inch, but that can seem plenty frightening when they buzz past our ears in the still of the night. In many parts of the country, mosquitoes are a true menace to both health and happiness. Let’s take a closer look at these nefarious flying vampires.

Before we get started, we should inform our readers that while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary prefers the word “mosquitoes” for the plural of “mosquito,” “mosquitos” is still an acceptable alternative. (Microsoft Word doesn’t know that, so its spellcheck application redlines “mosquitos.” However, Word also flags the compound word “spellcheck,” so consider the source.) The word “mosquito” derives from the Spanish and Portuguese, where it means “little fly” (i.e., the diminutive of mosca). The word dates to about the late fourteenth century, though as we’ll see, mosquitoes themselves have been around for quite a lot longer than that. They’re found all over the world, including the frozen Arctic.

Mosquito Origins

Fans of the book and movie Jurassic Park may recall its dinosaurs were cloned from materials found in fossilized mosquitoes. The mosquitoes, retrieved from amber mines where they were trapped in what used to be tree sap, still contained “dino DNA” in their stomachs. Could dinosaurs be cloned from the blood in mosquito fossils? It turns out there are a few nuggets of truth in the fiction, though not enough to worry bite-sized residents of Costa Rica any time soon.

The earliest known mosquitoes date back to the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous period, about a hundred million years ago. Mosquitoes were trapped in amber; indeed, we have two specimens (from Canada and Burma) in modern museums. The Burmese mosquito, discovered in early 2002, even appears to have the remains of a blood meal in its gut. We don’t know where that meal came from, but it’s unlikely the mosquito could have punctured the rugged hide of a dinosaur. However, a Cretaceous amber deposit in New Jersey contained a biting midge with mouth parts big enough to do the job. Cretaceous blood may never yield a complete DNA genome, but if it did, vector cloning and chromosome repair from amphibian DNA could complete the recipe for a baby dinosaur. The embryo would probably come to term inside a biologically similar mother, say, an extremely unfortunate frog.

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