Disease-carrying mosquitoes rare in undisturbed tropical forests

August 23, 2017, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Aedes is a genus of mosquitoes that includes species that transmit dengue fever, Zika virus, yellow fever and chikungunya virus. It was originally found in the tropics and subtropics and is now found on all continents except Antarctica. Credit: Jose Loaiza

A new study by scientists from the Smithsonian, the Panamanian government and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among other institutions, concludes that conserving old-growth tropical rainforest is "highly recommended" to prevent new outbreaks of viral and parasitic mosquito-borne diseases.

"We found that fewer mosquito species known to carry disease-causing pathogens live in forested areas compared to disturbed ones," said Jose Loaiza staff scientist at the Panamanian Institute of Scientific Research and High Technology Services (INDICASAT) and Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. "Mosquito species from altered sites are more likely to transmit disease than native to an area of mature tropical forest."

Loaiza's team used DNA barcoding to identify almost 8,000 mosquito larvae representing more than 50 species from water standing in natural or artificial containers or ground water at 245 sites where tropical lowland forest was highly disturbed (Las Pavas on the west bank of the Panama Canal), somewhat disturbed (Achiote, on the east bank of the canal) and undisturbed (at the Smithsonian's research station on Barro Colorado Island).

The French attempt to build the Panama Canal failed because no one knew how malaria and yellow fever spread. The Cuban discovery that mosquitoes carried disease-causing agents made it possible for the U.S. to complete the interoceanic canal in 1914.

Some members of Anopheles, a mosquito genus, transmit malaria. Credit: Jose Loaiza

Because mosquito control was so important to the success of the Panama Canal project throughout the 20th century, there is a large amount of information available about disease-transmitting mosquitoes in Panama. The Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit Mosquito Catalog and in-country sources recorded 286 species of Culicidae (the Mosquito family) in Panama. Anopheles albimanus is the main vector of malaria in Central America. Culex nigripalpus is the main vector of Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus in the US and C. pedroi is the main vector of Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus in Peru. All occur in Panama.

"Disease-carrying mosquito species were conspicuous in disturbed forest settings but almost nonexistent at undisturbed forest sites like the Smithsonian research station on Barro Colorado Island," said Oris Sanjur, STRI associate director for science administration and molecular biologist on the study. "Our results have important implications for tropical disease prevention and control. This is vital knowledge as global warming progresses and tropical disease organisms move into new areas."

Researchers tested a controversial ecological model that predicted that the highest mosquito species diversity should occur at medium forest disturbance, known as the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis. They did not find this to be true.

"It may be possible to displace disease-carrying mosquitoes by introducing other species that compete with them at the larval stage," Loaiza said.

Explore further: Smcientists explain spread of chikungunya vector

More information: Jose R. Loaiza et al, Disturbance and mosquito diversity in the lowland tropical rainforest of central Panama, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-07476-2

Related Stories

Smcientists explain spread of chikungunya vector

January 8, 2015

The tropical disease chikungunya began twisting Western tongues in July when the first locally transmitted case was reported in Florida. Spotted in the Caribbean just last year, the disease spread explosively throughout the ...

Smithsonian opens climate change lab in Panama

September 22, 2016

The Smithsonian Institution opened its first lab outside the United States on Wednesday, a $20-million research center in Panama that will study the effects of climate change on tropical forests.

Zika outbreak spreads in Panama

February 18, 2016

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has spread in Panama beyond a remote coastal area it was previously confined to, with a new case detected in the capital, the health ministry said Thursday.

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2017
Exterminate them all!
1 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2017
Then we don't need to use DDT to save human lives.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.