Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Down in jungleland: There Will Be Blood

From not-so-friendly neighbourhood mosquitoes to the more insidious vampire finch, meet nature’s little bloodsuckers.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
January 29, 2017 12:00:38 am
there-will-be-blood_759 The energetic Kenyan jumping spider, which gobbles up blood-filled mosquitoes, and so, prevents them from breeding, is a wonderfully ironic form of pest-control.

At some point or the other, we have all been victims of these lovelies. They all come well-equipped to achieve their major ambition in life: to suck and drink our blood! Oh no, they are not selfish, greedy ghouls like Dracula (and a lot of people we might know) — most of them do it only for the health and well-being of their babies, so you can’t fault them for that. And most of them are tiny: small may or may not be beautiful, but it can certainly be very dangerous.

Leading the pack are, of course, mosquitoes: delicate and filamentous as ballerinas, poised on your arm as sylph-like as the Concorde, wailing malaria, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, West Nile virus, Zika, filariasis and other wonderful agues in your ear. Mass killers across the world, they inflict casualties in millions annually. There are over 3,500 species. The ones that have a taste for us prefer O-type blood, heavy breathers and those who sweat a lot, with oodles of BO to boot. They pick up our scent via their antennae, alight with a feathery touch, insert their stinger-like proboscis and suck up three times their body weight in blood — injecting an anticoagulant while they do to ensure the works don’t get clogged up with clotting blood. And yes: it’s only the ladies that indulge in the blood-sipping, so that they have enough nourishment (and protein intake) to ensure their babies emerge healthy. The gents, bah — they are vegetarian wimps making do with plant juices and nectar. Of course, they take your blood and as a return gift, pass on a host of pathogens for you to deal with for the rest of your life.

Other charismatic tiny-tots which indulge in this kind of diet include horseflies, tsetse flies, assassin or “kissing” bugs (which are suspected to have given Charles Darwin the Chagas disease and killed him), bedbugs and lice. The vampire moth of the Calyptra species from our part of the world may feed on the blood of elephant, rhino and cattle — a big game hunter this one!

If you have ever kept dogs, you would have met ticks (and have had to remove them). Gentlemen are flat and brown; ladies, greenish grey and bulbous as barrage balloons. These tiny arachnids are actually found on a host of animals and birds and all their nutritional requirements are met by blood. They like hot, humid climes where there are plenty of animals and will wait, poised on plants (it’s called “questing”), for a potential meal to pass by before jumping on to its back. On the animal, they go for the soft areas — inside the ears, and in the soft skin between the paws — so do check those thoroughly while de-ticking your pet. They can apparently gain 200 to 600 times in weight after feeding. Ticks may pass on a dozen nasty afflictions, including Lyme disease (which ticks on deer may pass on). They may get on to you too so check yourself after you have checked your dog, though it’s supposed to take 36 hours before anything nasty is passed on to you from them.

Smaller, but equally revolting are fleas — which will scuttle about in your pet’s fur and then jump maybe 50 times its length, and vanish. Leeches, with their humping, loping gait and the ability to insert themselves into the most unspeakable of orifices are, perhaps, every camper or hiker’s nightmare. They are segmented worms usually found in fresh water, but may also inhabit marine environments or be terrestrial (which means you can’t get away from them). The most popular of the clan (if you can have TRP ratings for them) is the medicinal leech, which, we in India, have been using for 2,500 years for bloodletting cures in Ayurveda. They are still used in surgery — for sucking up blood messing up a surgical site (not strike!), and, in plastic and re-constructive surgery. Their “scalpels” consist of three sharp blades set at an angle to each other which slices through skin leaving a Y-shaped incision. To get one off, insert your fingernail under its sucker to break the seal and flick it off. Cigarette smoke, alcohol, salt and soap will make it release its grip too, but it will puke straight into the wound which is not something you want. You may bleed for hours, or even days afterwards, so powerful are their anti-coagulant chemicals. The mother of all nightmares is surely the giant Amazon leech which may grow up to 18 inches long.

Larger creatures, too, have made a living out of bloodsucking. Finches are normally small, sweet seed-eating birds — one lot of which made Darwin famous. But one species, the Vampire finch from the Galapagos Islands, has supplemented its diet with the blood of blue-footed boobies. The cute little birds hop on to the boobies’ tails; open a wound and feast on the blood. Of course, they love the blood of tender baby boobies the best, which sometimes bleed to death. Oxpeckers, which clean up the ticks on wild bovines, also discovered blood as a tasty supplement.

The most notorious bloodsuckers are, of course, the vampire bats, found in South and Central America and made villainous by Hollywood. They prefer animals to humans, use infra-red radiation to locate prey, may share their blood meals with clan members who have not eaten (or rather drunk), hunt in the dark, and only five per cent of which may carry the rabies virus.

Last but not least, there’s the energetic Kenyan jumping spider, which pounces on blood-filled mosquitoes and gobbles them up, and so prevents them from breeding — a wonderfully ironic form of pest-control!

And, yes, all these bloodsuckers try and ensure you do not feel a thing when they bite (some are thought to inject an anesthetic), which is more than can be said for bloodsuckers of the human kind.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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