I was in the garden the other evening weeding the bush beans when my son, who is 14 and who was in the woods nearby, asked me with evident annoyance, “What’s the purpose of mosquitoes?” Given the amount of rain we’d had recently, and the hour of the day, the question wasn’t far from my mind either.
“Depends what you mean,” I said. “For the mosquitoes themselves, their purpose is to breed and make sure their genes survive.”
But the survival of the Aedes sp. gene pool seemed like an inadequate reason, just then, to not wish for their complete eradication, particularly since he and I were both unhappily providing our blood to help those genes get passed along to another generation. So I improvised, making a general point without worrying about absolute scientific accuracy.
“Mosquitoes are a pain, no doubt. But lots of things eat mosquitoes or mosquito larvae. Fish in ponds. Maybe salamanders and toads and wood frogs. Dragonflies eat mosquitoes. So if we didn’t have mosquitoes we might not have as many of those other animals.”
I wasn’t sure he was convinced, and as I slapped another one that wanted to feed on my wrist, I wasn’t sure I was convinced either.
Then in yesterday’s New York Times I found a better explanation, in an essay called “Protecting Many Species to Help Our Own,” by Richard Pearson, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Pearson made the point that while there are an enormous number of species that science hasn’t studied or even identified, we know enough about threats to plants and animals to speculate that we might be on the verge of a sixth great extinction (the previous five having occurred at intervals over the last 540 million years, give or take).
Perason then explained why we should care:
“It is often forgotten how dependent we are on other species. Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies.
“These systems provide food, fresh water and the raw materials for construction and fuel; they regulate climate and air quality; buffer against natural hazards like floods and storms; maintain soil fertility; and pollinate crops. The genetic diversity of the planet’s myriad different life-forms provides the raw ingredients for new medicines and new commercial crops and livestock, including those that are better suited to conditions under a changed climate.”
There, I thought as I read, is the answer to the question about the purpose of mosquitoes.
It also occurred to me that it was a good explanation for why Connecticut Audubon Society works so hard to conserve the state’s birds and their habitats – why, for example, we’re spending days on end this spring and summer monitoring and protecting vulnerable beach-nesting birds like Piping Plovers and Least Terns.
Yes, it’s because we love birds. But it’s also because, as Pearson put it, “Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies.”
I’m going to memorize that sentence. The next time an adolescent boy asks me, “What’s the purpose of mosquitoes?” I will recite it. It will help remind us that even the little things we do are part of a bigger picture.
Of course, being a teenager, he’ll roll his eyes, and I might roll mine too – and it definitely will not deter us, the next time we’re in the woods or the garden, from trying to get them before they get us. – Tom Andersen, director of communications and community outreach.