What’s eating you? Turns out, lots of things may be eating you, and not just metaphorically. Sanguinivores are animals who primarily dine on the blood of other animals and include critters from habitats all over the world. Don’t scream and run away just yet. Blood-drinking animals are important parts of their ecosystems, and learning a little more about them may help keep them from eating you.
Some familiar sanguinivores include vampire bats, ticks and leeches, but bed bugs, fleas, head lice and many other types of insects also love to lap up blood. However, the most well known, most common, and most annoying of all sanguinivores is probably the mosquito. Don’t let their size fool you. The mosquitoes’ bite is definitely more dangerous than its buzz. Mosquitoes are the deadliest animal on Earth, resulting in the deaths of over a million people a year. Mosquitoes are the perfect vector for carrying viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms that can infect not only humans, but lots of other animals.
Not every mosquito carries disease, and many of them don’t. In fact, not even all mosquitoes bite. Both male and female adult mosquitoes feed primarily on sugary plant nectar, but females require blood to help develop their eggs and have piercing mouthparts to help break through the skin of animals. Despite only half of mosquitoes enjoying tasty blood meals, it seems impossible to get through the summer without at least one itchy bite. The annoying bumps from mosquito bites are caused by their saliva. While one tube in the proboscis draws blood, a second pumps saliva containing a mild painkiller and an anticoagulant that keeps blood flowing smoothly. Most people have minor allergic reactions to the saliva, causing the area around the bite to swell and itch.
Mosquitoes are amazingly well adapted to their niche as a bloodsucker. If you feel like you’re someone who sets the mosquitoes to swarming as soon as you step outside, you may not be wrong. They can find their prey by sight and smell from 100 feet away by detecting infrared radiation (body heat) emitted by their hosts, as well as the carbon dioxide and lactic acid in breath.
Despite being a nuisance, mosquitoes play an important role in the ecosystem and are sources of food for a number of aquatic animals, bats, birds, and even other insects. The two main mosquito predators are fish and dragonflies. The appropriately named mosquitofish feed on mosquito larvae and are used all over the world to help control mosquito populations, and some towns in Maine release dragonflies every summer as a natural form of mosquito control!
In Wyoming we’re lucky to have a reprieve from some of our bloodsucking friends during the winter. We also have this opportunity to learn about their life cycles, what they are attracted to, and how we can best avoid them in the warmer months. Use these months to arm yourself with knowledge of the grossest, but most useful kind by visiting the “Attack of the Bloodsuckers” exhibit on display at the Science Zone from January through May.
“Attack of the Bloodsuckers” is skin-crawling family fun with hands-on interactive displays, games and, yes, live specimens. Learn about the deadliest creature on Earth, the mosquito, behind the safety of carefully sealed containers. In addition to mosquitos, visitors can explore the science of sanguinivorous critters like fleas, ticks, leeches and other bloodsuckers. See leeches swim. Detect body heat and carbon dioxide like a mosquito. Find out if your smelly feet are giving you away to local parasites. Learn about bloodsuckers’ roles in ecosystems, and maybe, most importantly, learn why maybe, just maybe, bloodsuckers do have a place in this world.