Millions of Mosquitoes Will Rain Down on Hawaii to Save an Iconic Bird

S. Wild,  Scientific American,  2023.

Millions of mosquitoes dropped from helicopters could be the greatest hope for Hawaii’s iconic honeycreepers. At least four species of the brightly colored birds could go extinct within the year if no action is taken to save them. “We’re seriously in a race against time at the moment,” says Hanna Mounce, program manager of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. These small birds evolved on the islands over the course of millions of years and are uniquely adapted to their niche habitat, where they are crucial pollinators for many of Hawaii’s flora. For the people of Hawaii, the honeycreepers are also woven into the cultural fabric, featuring prominently in many legends and providing feathers for traditional garments. More than 50 species of honeycreepers once flitted across the archipelago, but because of introduced predators, habitat destruction and disease, that number has dwindled to only 17. Invasive Culex quinquefasciatus mosquitoes—possibly introduced via water barrels on European ships in the early 19th century—pose a particular threat because they spread the deadly avian malaria parasite.IIT works like this: C. quinquefasciatus mosquitoes, as well as many other arthropods, naturally contain Wolbachia bacteria in their gut. In order to produce offspring together, mating mosquitoes must be infected with the same strain of the bacteria. Birds, Not Mosquitoes’ plan involves releasing male mosquitoes bred by Verily Life Sciences—the life sciences research arm of Alphabet, which also owns Google. These mosquitos will host a different Wolbachia strain than those on Maui. The idea is that the existing female mosquitoes will mate with the male newcomers, but because of their incompatible Wolbachia bacteria, they will not produce viable offspring. If all goes according to plan, the overall mosquito population will plummet.

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