The mosquitoes purpose in our ecosystem is to provide food and pollination.

Pictured to the right, ecologists take samples from a lake to test the health of its ecosystem, by looking for tiny creatures that only thrive under certain conditions.

Mosquitoes can have both positive and negative impacts on the ecosystem. As part of their useful role, the larvae of mosquitoes live in water and provide food for fish and other wildlife, including larger larvae of other species such as dragonflies. The larvae themselves eat microscopic organic matter in the water, helping to recycle it. Adult mosquitoes make up part of the diet of some insect-eating animals, such as birds, bats, adult dragonflies and spiders. They also help pollinate some flowers, when they consume nectar.

But mosquitoes also can have a damaging role, harming other animals by being a vector for diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis and dengue. The mosquitoes don’t cause the diseases themselves but only act as carriers. They need to feed on a person or animal who is already infected, then when they bite a healthy person or animal afterward, they pass on the disease.

In places where a particular disease is not already present, there’s no risk of catching it from mosquitoes, but ecologists worry because if infected humans or animals do come into the area, the mosquitoes that already live there will spread the disease among the rest of the healthy population.

“Clear close-up photos bring to life the story of mosquitoes, from larvae to adults. For ages 6-12.”

Usually, the bites themselves are just an annoyance if there’s no chance of illness, but sometimes mosquitoes are so overwhelming, their sheer numbers have a major impact. In some places around the Arctic where summers are short, mosquito season is brief, but so many are competing for a bite of mammal blood that they cluster in dense swarms, causing caribou herds to flee.

As annoying and dangerous as mosquitoes are, scientists don’t want to recommend exerminating all of them, or any other species, unless they’re sure there won’t be any unintended bad consequences. Thirty years ago, people understood that eradicating one species might affect others, but they looked more for large, obvious changes. Today, scientists examine the ecosystem more closely, since even small changes can produce large alterations over time. Bugs, in general, have a long history of both helping and hurting human life, and interacting with people and the ecosystem in ways one might not expect. A humorous, scientifically accurate book about them, by a professor of entomology is Bugs in the System: Insects And Their Impact On Human Affairs.

An unfortunate role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem is spreading diseases to humans.

The problem with getting rid of all mosquitoes is that we don’t know everything about them yet. They may be useful in ways we can’t imagine. John Carlson, studying at Tulane University, wrote, about Costa Rica, “If all of the mosquitoes were killed, the ecosystem would probably not suffer, unless the poisons used to kill them also killed organisms that are required for the balance of the rainforests.”

But he cautioned that we also can’t be sure that some useful chemical might one day be found in mosquitoes, so they may have some value in the future that we’re not even aware of now.

Still, many scientists think the world would survive the loss of mosquitoes without too much damage. The problems may be caused more by how we get rid of them.

Role in Ecosystem

Even if mosquitoes themselves don’t have a vital role in a particular ecosystem, insecticides used to kill them may harm other creatures that do. A Florida mosquito control white paper points out that some small organisms, such as arthropods the same size as mosquito larvae, may be more vulnerable to pesticides than the mosquitoes themselves. Trying to kill off the mosquitoes may kill off all similar creatures. Fish and other animals which ate mosquito larvae wouldn’t be able to switch to another diet, because not enough similar creatures would survive. So scientists not only need to learn the role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem and judge how important they are, they also need to study the role of any other creatures that might be affected by our attempts to get rid of them.

A possible way of eradicating them without killing any other living things, is a new plan scientists are working on, to release males with a lethal gene which prevents their offspring from surviving.

One company has made a mosquito which won’t live unless it receives the antibiotic tetracycline, according to an article in the Oct. 30, 2011 New York Times. The company can breed the mosquitoes in a lab by giving them the antibiotic to keep them alive, then introduce them in the wild, where they will live long enough to mate with normal females, but their offspring will die. The company released 19,000 of the special mosquitoes in 2009 on a Grand Cayman island, and the males with the lethal gene successfully reduced the mosquito population, though they still weren’t as successful at breeding as normal males, so many of the next generation were normal and survived.

Unlike other insecticides, this way of controlling them can only affect mosquitoes, but there are still ethical concerns.

Though scientists are fairly sure that mosquitoes’ useful role in the ecosystem is small enough that other insects could take over, if we ever have the ability to eliminate them completely we’ll want to be sure they’re not serving some purpose we’re currently unaware of.

Mosquitoes seem to serve no purpose other to annoy us. But from the mosquitoes’ point of view, their purpose is to make more mosquitoes. From the point of view of birds, fishes, frogs and other animals that eat them, their purpose is to provide a source of food.

But does the world actually need mosquitoes? It’s hard to find a reason.

An article by Janet Fang in the July 2010 magazine Nature asked scientists what the world would be like without mosquitoes.

Most of them thought that we wouldn’t miss the annoying little creatures. Disease among humans would decrease, if the mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis and other illnesses disappeared.

“Crazy random bug trivia that makes reading about insects fun, for younger kids.”

In the Arctic tundra, mosquitoes form dense clouds when they hatch. Birds which nest in that region might miss them as a source of food, if they disappeared. But other scientists say that mosquitoes don’t make up a large enough part of the birds’ diets, and they could survive on midges or other insects just as well. Caribou, which must deal with the onslaught of the mosquitoes, might change their paths, feeding in new places, and alter the ecosystem in localized areas of the Arctic.

Elsewhere, fish, frogs, lizards, spiders and other animals that eat mosquito larvae or adult mosquitoes would lose a food source. Mosquitoes make up a small part of the diet of some, but others, like the mosquitofish or gambusia, which specializes in eating the larvae, might become extinct. But most animals already eat enough of something else, or could change their diet, so they wouldn’t go hungry without mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes swarm in the Arctic, where their purpose seems to be to torment caribou and become food for birds, though they also pollinate some flowers.
Mosquito larvae consume a lot of organic matter in wetlands, helping recycle nutrients back into the ecosystem, but other larvae and water-dwelling creatures also do the same and could take over that job.

Adult mosquitoes feed on nectar as well as blood–in fact, nectar is all the adult males eat–so some plants might suffer due to lack of pollinators if mosquitoes stopped visiting, especially northern orchids. Though this might alter things somewhat, the plants aren’t necessarily crucial to the ecosystem.

The biggest effect, is that fewer people would die of mosquito-spread diseases, so there would be more humans on the earth, especially in countries that are already having trouble supporting their populations. But humans would be healthier, more productive, and not have to spend so much time and effort caring for those who were sick. “The romantic notion of every creature having a vital place in nature may not be enough to plead the mosquito’s case,” Janet Fang concludes, in the Nature article. “It is the limitations of mosquito-killing methods, not the limitations of intent, that make a world without mosquitoes unlikely.”

Mosquitoes spread malaria
Mosquitoes’ most noticeable purpose in Africa is spreading malaria and other diseases.
Of course, when imagining a world without mosquitoes, one must imagine that they were killed in a way that was harmless to other creatures, and that’s part of the reason we can’t just eliminate them, as much as we’d like to. Insecticides kill not only mosquitoes, but other animals too. Even specially targeted natural larvicides, like those using Bti, kill a few closely related species such as black flies and gnats.

So even though mosquitoes don’t seem to have a purpose, other than to cause us annoyance and misery, we can’t just get rid of them right now, without doing more harm to other species that are more useful.

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Images courtesy of the USDA.