By Edward Ricciuti
Armchair scientists nimble enough to catch insect lightning in a jar have helped the professionals map distribution of invasive mosquitoes in Germany—and they even detected three previously unknown populations of Aedes japonicus japonicus, which spreads the West Nile virus.
Described in a new paper in the Journal of Medical Entomology, the effort is a citizen science project started in 2012 at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research and the German Federal Research Institute for Animal Health. It is part of a campaign by several European countries to monitor and surveille invasive mosquito species due to an increase in mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile, chikungunya, and dengue on the continent.
The term “citizen science” describes community-based participation by the public in scientific projects, often via data gathering. Worldwide, citizens have long been enlisted to help scientists with projects such as counting birds and butterflies and reporting astronomical phenomena, a partnership that has been extended into research on public health.
Authors of the paper are Doreen Walther, Ph.D., of the Leibniz Centre and Helge Kampen, Ph.D., of the animal health institute. To the best of their knowledge, they say, the project “is the first and most successful citizen science project (in terms of annual participants and scientific outcomes) focusing on potential vector species.” Run by Walther and known as the “Mueckenatlas“(Mosquito Atlas), it is viewed by the authors as a model for an early warning system that can trigger and help design more elaborate monitoring systems for invasive species.”
In effect, volunteers who collect mosquitoes in their own communities provide scientists with a corpus delicti, a whole insect, rather than a photo or written report, the usual process. Moreover, collecting by the public is much cheaper and more manageable than establishing and maintaining a network of mosquito traps over the landscape.
The collecting process can be tricky. The mosquito hunter must creep up on a resting insect, place a jar or similar container over it, slap on a cover and pop the insect into a freezer to kill it. Accompanied by a form for noting collection date and time, precise location, and environment, downloaded from the Atlas’s website, the mosquito goes to scientists for identification in the laboratory. In return, the collector is sent information about the individual mosquito, such as its species. Together with data from other projects focusing on German culicids, the Mueckenatlas data are also entered into the German mosquito database Culbase, which facilitates the production of detailed species distribution maps, models for the future spread of the various species under preset scenarios, and assessments of future risk of mosquito-borne diseases.
If data from volunteer submissions suggest a problem population in a given area, scientists can then zero in with full-fledged monitoring programs. After volunteers submitted specimens of Ae. j. japonicus from western, northern, and southeastern Germany, for example, researchers followed up and found three new populations of the insect. It was first detected on the Swiss border in 2008, and then it colonized a wide area of southwestern Germany. The new revelations indicate it is spreading.
Atlas operators recruit citizens via its website and by an extensive public relations campaign that includes press releases, newspaper articles, television appearances, and flyer distribution. Response has been enthusiastic. From April 2012 to the end of 2015, the Mueckenatlas received more than 7,300 submissions totaling more than 29,000 mosquitoes. About 75 percent of them contained mosquitoes. The rest were other insects, largely flies, bees, and wasps. Citizen trappers also turned in some extremely rare and new mosquitoes, so uncommon they are not normally caught in conventional traps.
Journal of Medical Entomology
Ed Ricciuti is a journalist, author, and naturalist who has been writing for more than a half century. His latest book is called Bears in the Backyard: Big Animals, Sprawling Suburbs, and the New Urban Jungle (Countryman Press, June 2014). His assignments have taken him around the world. He specializes in nature, science, conservation issues, and law enforcement. A former curator at the New York Zoological Society, and now at the Wildlife Conservation Society, he may be the only man ever bitten by a coatimundi on Manhattan’s 57th Street.