If we were rational creatures, we would fear our back yards more than our beaches.
Though oceans contain real-life monsters like the great white, our lawns and parks are home to humankind’s deadliest foe: the ubiquitous mosquito.
“Harvester of human populations,” “the grim reaper,” “the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet” — these are some of the ways that history professor Timothy C. Winegard describes these flying pests in his new book “Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator” (Dutton), last Tuesday.
The numbers speak for themselves: “The mosquito has killed more people than any other cause of death in human history,” writes Winegard. “Statistical extrapolation situates mosquito-inflicted deaths approaching half of all humans that have ever lived.”
In other words, during our 200,000 years on Earth, the lowly mosquito has murdered an estimated 52 billion of us.
Last year mosquitoes killed 850,000 people — but the annual average hovers around 2 million. Sharks, by contrast, killed 10.
There are 110 trillion mosquitoes stalking the world at this very moment (with only a few places, like Antarctica, the Seychelles and a few French Polynesian islands outside the range of its proboscis). These insects harbor at least 15 lethal diseases. The most deadly are the “toxic twin” of malaria and yellow fever, but mosquitoes also transmit other lethal viruses, like West Nile and Zika, worms and parasites.
Meanwhile, a big enough swarm could leech half the blood from an adult human in just two hours.
Maybe it’s time for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” to rebrand as “Mosquito Week.”
The mosquito emerged 190 million years ago looking disarmingly similar to the way it does today. Like now, it carried its own “weapons of mass destruction” that decimated the dinosaurs. Mosquitoes injected deadly diseases, including malaria and worms (similar to heartworms that dogs get today), into even the most heavily armored beasts.
Entomologists George and Roberta Poinar wrote in “What Bugged the Dinosaurs?” that mosquitoes “were the top predators in the food chain” and they shaped “the destiny of the dinosaurs just as they shape our world today.”
Of course, mosquitoes not only survived after the dinosaur’s extinction — but thrived. Winegard argues that the mosquito exists as a foil to humanity’s progress — haunting us as an unseen player in some of history’s most pivotal moments.
Mosquitoes helped topple Alexander the Great, who likely developed malaria, which killed him before he was able to unite East and West, Winegard writes. “Had this malarious mosquito not sucked the life out of Alexander, all indications point toward an advance into the Far East. Had this occurred, it would have upended the course of history and humankind to the point where modern society would literally be unrecognizable.
Malaria also played a key role in halting Genghis Khan and his Mongolian army. “The mosquito helped prevent the West from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe,” he writes.
The pests also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War. It tipped the balance in favor of Washington’s army because many of the Brits, unlike the Americans, were not “seasoned” against malaria, meaning they had not developed immunity. Also, mosquito-repelling quinine was sent in greater quantities to British troops in the Caribbean and India than to America, displacing a key advantage for the Redcoats.
And during the Civil War, soldiers were five times more likely to die from malaria than in battle — and many of the hotbed mosquito zones were located in the South.
Even during World War II, German malariologists pressed the Nazi officers to open dikes and refilled marshes with brackish water in Italy to “encourage the proliferation of the deadly mosquito species, Anopheles labranchiae, which thrives in brackish environments,” to act as an “act of biological warfare” against the Allied troops.