In Newfoundland and Labrador the mosquito is considered by most to be little more than a nuisance – an itchy annoyance to be squished, if caught in close quarters, but otherwise ignored.
Researchers at Memorial, however, are educating themselves to be able to identify the large variety of species of mosquito in the province. The goal is to be better prepared to recognize the potential health risks they can pose through mosquito borne diseases such as equine and human encephalitis and West Nile Disease.
“The island of Newfoundland has simple insect life, as far as variety goes, from what we find on the mainland or in Europe, but it’s still quite complicated,” said Dr. Tom Chapman, a professor of Biology. “Previously we had been mostly self-taught on the taxonomy of the different species of mosquito and were able to identify some of the more than 30 types we think are in the province.”
To broaden their taxonomic understanding, last month Dr. Chapman and two of his entomology graduate students, Andrew Chaulk and Kate Bassett, participated in a Mosquito Identification and Certification Workshop offered by the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach – the only such program of its kind in the world.
The organization operates under the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, established in 1956 as part of the state’s desire to conduct research on the biology and control of mosquitos.
“In the 1950s, Florida went to war against the mosquito,” said Dr. Chapman. “I think a lot of the early people who were involved in this program had just come back from WWI and these decommissioned officers went after those mosquitos like it was an invasion of France. Even now the state spends over $110 million a year on mosquito control.”
The university has been offering the accredited identification program for the last 14 years, first to local groups and individuals tasked with mosquito control and later to public health officials and researchers from around the world.
“Taxonomy is important because some viruses can be in dozens of different species, and some are intimately connected to one species in particular,” said Dr. Chapman. “The communities of mosquitos we have in Newfoundland presently can also impact how likely something carrying disease can invade from outside of the province and persist here.”
Being able to identify mosquitos, and discover their local habitats, is vital to understanding the potential risks that can arise from their presence.
We don’t currently know a lot about mosquitos in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Ms. Bassett. “We’re relying on information from New Jersey and other places that have been documenting their habitats and how to control them.
“Andrew’s recently begun working on figuring out where their habitats are here in this province so we can be more aware of where to look for the particular species that carry viruses.”
The challenge of learning how to distinguish between the varieties of mosquito was no easy task, considering there are entire textbooks on the subject.
“The course was two weeks long, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in class plus study time – a total of 10 hours a day spent mastering this information,” said Dr. Chapman. “The first week was spent on adult identification and the second week was all about the immature stages.
“It was just horrible,” he says with a laugh. “There are over 240 hairs on the body of a mosquito larvae and the relative sizes, positions and shapes of these individual hairs were different depending on which species you were identifying.”
Having completed the course, the trio is now considering new areas of research focusing on the mosquito.
“This course has given me a taxonomic foundation for building much more important research programs,” said Dr. Chapman. “Coming out of this workshop we also have a new collaboration with a taxonomic expert who will send us specimens for molecular sequencing and we’ll send her some to confirm our identifications.”
“We’ve previously not been able to identify species at the larval stage, we’ve had to rear them up to adults first. Now we’re going to identify some and preserve them on microscope slides so we can have a permanent library on hand as a reference.”