Mosquitoes may learn to avoid you if you swat at them enough

mosquitoes
CC BY 2.0 Army Medicine / Flickr

Once mosquitoes have learned your odor and associate it with swatting, they can become as averse to you as they are to DEET, says study.

We already know that mosquitoes seem to have a preference from some people over others, but now research finds that we can abet that aversion by the simple act of swatting. Thank you thank you thank you, science.

The study, published in Current Biology, reveals that mosquitoes can learn to associate a particular odor with an unpleasant mechanical shock – like being swatted. And as a result, they'll steer clear of that scent the next time they encounter it.

"Once mosquitoes learned odors in an aversive manner, those odors caused aversive responses on the same order as responses to DEET, which is one of the most effective mosquito repellents," says Jeffrey Riffell of the University of Washington, Seattle. "Moreover, mosquitoes remember the trained odors for days."

Which, to be honest, sounds a bit too smart for me. I’d prefer to think of the deadliest creature in the world as a randomly vexing and not-so-bright pest, not one employing strategy and precision. But, no.

In an effort to understand more about how learning might influence mosquitoes' biting decisions, Riffell and his colleagues conducted a number of experiments employing Aedes aegypti, a widespread species that can deliver dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika, and yellow fever viruses, among others. They discovered that the insects could pretty quickly learn an association between a host odor and a mechanical shock associated with that odor; a lesson that they then used in deciding which direction to fly. For the mechanical shock component of the research, the scientists used a machine that mimicked the effects that a mosquito would experience when being swatted.

And the potential host doesn’t even need to touch the pesky thing, just the air vibration alone is enough to make them uncomfortable.

The findings may have important implications for mosquito control and the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases, notes the University of Washington.

"By understanding how mosquitoes are making decisions on whom to bite, and how learning influences those behaviors, we can better understand the genes and neuronal bases of the behaviors," Riffell says. "This could lead to more effective tools for mosquito control."

Not to mention a better night's sleep for anyone battling the incessant hum of a dive-bombing mosquito circling for a meal.

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