Field of Science

The Feared Mosquito

It's one of those standard pub-quiz "trick" questions. What animal kills the most people? The hope is that contestants will nominate the 'obvious'—snakes, sharks, bears, whatever—before being blind-sided by the revelation that mosquitoes kill over a million people. They don't kill them directly, of course; their victims die from the diseases they spread*. The statistic also glosses over the point that there are many hundreds of species of mosquito that vary significantly in the nature and severity of their role as disease vectors. Nevertheless, for this post I'm considering the group that includes some of the most notorious vectors: the genus Anopheles.

*For the record, if the question was confined to active killings, the most dangerous animal to humans is other humans. Dogs come a distant second.

Anopheles punctipennis feeding, with the long palps extended in front of the head, copyright Nathan D. Burkett-Cadena/University of Florida.

Anopheles is one of the most divergent genera of mosquitoes, being placed in a distinct subfamily Anophelinae (along with a couple of small related genera) from the bulk of mosquitoes in the subfamily Culicinae. Adult Anopheles can be readily distinguished from culicine mosquitoes by their palps which are about as long as the proboscis (in other mosquitoes, the palps are distinctly shorter). Larvae of Anopheles lack the long respiratory siphons at the end of the abdomen found in other mosquito larvae so they rest parallel with the water surface rather than hanging below it. The genus is found around the world; over 450 named species are currently known (Harbach 2013) with many more waiting to be described. The genus is currently divided between seven subgenera though one of the largest of these, the cosmopolitan subgenus Anopheles, is not monophyletic. The remaining subgenera are better supported with the largest of these, Cellia, being found in the Old World. Between them, the subgenera Anopheles and Cellia account for over 400 of the known Anopheles species. The remaining small subgenera are mostly Neotropical with a single Oriental species being awarded its own subgenus.

Anopheles maculipennis, copyright Ryszard.

Anopheles is of most concern to humans, of course, for its role as a disease vector. As with other mosquitoes, the transmission of disease is done entirely by females taking blood meals to provide nutrients for their developing eggs. Males are not blood feeders, instead feeding entirely on sugar sources such as nectar (females also feed on nectar for their own nutrition). The main disease spread by Anopheles is malaria, but they may also spread malaises such as filariasis and arboviruses (Krzywinski & Besansky 2003). As noted above, species may vary significantly in their importance as disease vectors, even between quite closely related taxa. Many historically recognised vector "species" have proved, on close inspection, to represent species complexes of which some may be vectors and others not. For instance, one of the most important transmitters of malaria, the African A. gambiae, has been divided between at least eight different species (Coetzee et al. 2013). Misidentification of vectors can be a significant issue. For instance, mosquito control regimes in central Vietnam during the 1990s focused on two species, A. dirus and A. minimus, that were each active at different times of year. However, Van Bortel et al. (2001) found that A. minimus was in fact very rare in this area, with specimens previously thought to be A. minimus proving to be another species, A. varuna. Anopheles varuna is not a significant malaria vector, feeding almost entirely on animals such as cattle rather than on humans. Large amounts of resources would have been wasted trying to control a mosquito that was of little concern. What is more, the fact that malaria was not being transmitted by A. minimus raises the possibility that it was being spread by yet another species, one that had managed to escape attention. Remember, kids: bad taxonomy kills.


Coetzee, M., R. H. Hunt, R. Wilkerson, A. Della Torre, M. B. Coulibaly & N. J. Besansky. 2013. Anopheles coluzzii and Anopheles amharicus, new members of the Anopheles gambiae complex. Zootaxa 3619 (3): 246–274.

Harbach, R. E. 2013. The phylogeny and classification of Anopheles. In: S. Manguin (ed.) Anopheles Mosquitoes: New insights into malaria vectors. InTechOpen.

Krzywinski, J., & N. J. Besansky. 2003. Molecular systematics of Anopheles: from subgenera to subpopulations. Annual Review of Entomology 48: 111–139.

Van Bortel, W., R. E. Harbach, H. D. Trung, P. Roelants, T. Backeljau & M. Coosemans. 2001. Confirmation of Anopheles varuna in Vietnam, previously misidentified and mistargeted as the malaria vector Anopheles minimus. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 65 (6): 729–732.

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