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Scientists: ecosystem doesn't need malaria-carrying mosquitoes

Malaria killed nearly half a million people in 2016, most of them under the age of 5, and infected another 200 million more. The easiest solution might be wiping out malaria-carrying mosquitoes – but would that trigger some sort of twisted “butterfly effect” that causes destruction of ecosystems on a massive scale?

Not likely.

New research by an international team of scientists led by Imperial College London have found that a species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes isn’t all that necessary in its native habitats.

Most cases of malaria today are found in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, not every species of mosquito carries the tropical disease, which leads to fever, chills, vomiting, seizures and other painful symptoms.

As part of their Target Malaria project, the team of researchers hopes to genetically engineer Anopheles gambiae, one of the carrier species of mosquito, to suppress the illness. Before they did, however, they wanted to research how the species’ disappearance might affect the ecosystems in which An. gambiae lives.

That’s when they discovered that the malaria-carrying mosquitoes don’t really fill much of an ecological niche. No animals depend on them for food, and their presence isn’t needed to keep other insects’ or animals’ populations from exploding.

“As adults, An. gambiae mosquitoes are small, hard to catch, most mobile at night and not very juicy, so they are not a rewarding prey for both insect and vertebrate predators,” lead researcher Dr. Tilly Collins told the Daily Mail.

Blood-heavy female mosquitoes do make an important meal for a species of spider that lives in some of the An. gambiae habitats, but it’s not picky about the species of mosquito it feeds on.

And in the habitats studied so far, researchers found that the disappearance of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes wouldn’t cause any population explosions of its competitor species. Other mosquitoes that don’t spread the disease would simply fill the vacuum.

To verify its findings, Target Malaria is launching a new, four-year study of An. gambiae in Ghana, supported by the University of Oxford and the University of Ghana.

The current research has been published in the journal Medical and Veterinary Entomology.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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