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Mosquitoes of New Mexico

by Theodore Wolff Ph.D. and Lewis T. Nielsen

Found in: | Inside | Books |

They are the bane and a bother for any outdoorsman. Foul weather aside, biting bugs can blight a good outing. And the tiniest of biting bugs, mosquitoes, can kill you. Millions of people have died from a tiny prick of the skin by a mosquito.

Probably no other animal on the face of the earth has been responsible for more deaths, so says Theodore Wolff, PhD, a co-author of a new book from the University of New Mexico Press, titled The Mosquitoes of New Mexico. Wolff co-wrote the book with Lewis T. Nielsen, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Utah.

We outdoors people go to great length to keep mosquitoes at length: netting, salves and sprays, even new clothing is on the market and stitched in its fabric is bug repellent. It's an age-old problem for anyone spending time out of doors for what ever reasons. The names we put on places document our experiences in an autobiographical sense: witness the town of Mosquero in northern New Mexico; it loosely means a 'swarm of flies,' undoubtedly documenting someone's unpleasant experience along a creek of the same name.

Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery discovered mosquitoes as an epic problem. But Lewis came prepared, provisioning the Corps with netting and catgut, tallow, and hog lard salve to serve as a repellent. But one senses the salves didn't work. Lewis wrote once that mosquitoes were so thick in his face and on his rifle, that he couldn't see his front sight to aim. The writers wrote variously that the "musquetors were most troublesome."

And it's the trouble that they bring that was the impetus to write an arcane book on the natural history of New Mexico. Wolff, who works at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque in community outreach, has had an interest in these little disease vectors for a long time, since childhood. Growing up in Philadelphia Wolff was keenly aware of an historic event that nearly brought the young United States to its knees in 1793. It wasn't a foreign invading army ? it was mosquitoes.

Yellow fever broke out in the then capital city of the United States. Those who could leave did, like President George Washington. But philanthropist Stephen Girard stayed, aiding the sick. Girard Street in Albuquerque is named for he and the college he founded and Wolff attended.

Wolff is not a recent arrival to New Mexico. He's worked as a science teacher, served in the Peace Corps abroad, and worked for the New Mexico Health Department in medical parasitology. It was there that he had many occasion to collect mosquitoes over the entire state.

The Mosquitoes of New Mexico is an epic collection of all you would want to know about where the 60 species of mosquitoes live and how they make a living. It is a handsome book; the title and a mosquito are embossed in gold on a cover of purple like the blood that courses through veins that female mosquitoes need to procreate.

The American Southwest is blessed with an extreme diversity of land types, says Wolff. In southern New Mexico, near Las Cruces you'll find Chihuahuan grasslands. Near the Colorado state line, you'll find alpine tundra. At both ends and in between you'll find a diversity of habitats, and that diversity is expressed in the tiny mosquitoes that live there.

Some lay eggs in tree holes, some in desert rocks, and others live only the briefest time to lay eggs in snow-melt pools at 12,000 feet.

Between the pages of Wolff and Nielsen's book you'll read that not all mosquitoes are pests to people; they pollinate flowers and have their place in nature, they themselves feeding bats and barn swallows and flycatchers.

You might sense, too, the dedication and attachment that scientists have to their subject of study. One species common to the Gila region in New Mexico and Arizona, /Anopheles judithae/, was named for the wife of the man who described it for science. They don't have common names, but this one might be called "Judith's mosquito," in an act of love for the man's wife and for science. Another known at /Uranotaenia sapphirina/ is so named for a sapphire-like quality in its coloration. It's confined to northern New Mexico and may have been the "mosquero" that so impressed at least one writer who laid the name to a place.

This book is profusely illustrated with detailed drawings, and will undoubtedly be put to use by scientists and mosquito control workers. And for anyone interested in the natural history of the Southwest, it belongs on your book shelf, too.

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