Escaping blood-fed malaria mosquitoes minimize tactile detection without compromising on take-off speed

Abstract

To escape after taking a blood meal, a mosquito must exert forces sufficiently high to take off when carrying a load roughly equal to its body weight, while simultaneously avoiding detection by minimizing tactile signals exerted on the host’s skin. We studied this trade-off between escape speed and stealth in the malaria mosquito Anopheles coluzzii using 3D motion analysis of high-speed stereoscopic videos of mosquito take-offs and aerodynamic modeling. We found that during the push-off phase, mosquitoes enhanced take-off speed using aerodynamic forces generated by the beating wings in addition to leg-based push-off forces, whereby wing forces contributed 61% of the total push-off force. Exchanging leg-derived push-off forces for wing-derived aerodynamic forces allows the animal to reduce peak force production on the host’s skin. By slowly extending their long legs throughout the push-off, mosquitoes spread push-off forces over a longer time window than insects with short legs, thereby further reducing peak leg forces. Using this specialized take-off behavior, mosquitoes are capable of reaching take-off speeds comparable to those of similarly sized fruit flies, but with weight-normalized peak leg forces that were only 27% of those of the fruit flies. By limiting peak leg forces, mosquitoes possibly reduce the chance of being detected by the host. The resulting combination of high take-off speed and low tactile signals on the host might help increase the mosquito’s success in escaping from blood-hosts, which consequently also increases the chance of transmitting vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, to future hosts.

Wouter G. van Veen
Wouter G. van Veen
Aspiring developer & scientist

I use computational fluid mechanics to research the fundaments of insect flight.

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