How do mosquitoes find their targets?

I hate being bitten by the little mosquito but then again who does. There’s hope. Scientists have figured out how the mosquito brain uses signals from its visual and olfactory systems to identify, track, and home in on a host for its next blood meal.

For a new study in Current Biology, researchers conducted behavioral experiments and real-time recording of the female mosquito brain and discovered that when the mosquito’s olfactory system detects certain chemical cues, they trigger changes in its brain that initiate a behavioral response: The mosquito begins to use her visual system to scan her surroundings for specific types of shapes and fly toward them, presumably associating those shapes with potential hosts.

Only female mosquitoes feed on blood, and the results give scientists a much-needed glimpse of the sensory-integration process that the mosquito brain uses to locate a host. They say the findings will help develop new methods for mosquito control and reduce the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.

The study focused on the olfactory cue that triggers the hunt for a host: carbon dioxide, or CO2. For mosquitoes, smelling CO2 is a telltale sign that a potential meal is nearby.

“Our breath is just loaded with CO2,” says corresponding author Jeffrey Riffell, professor of biology at the University of Washington. “It’s a long-range attractant, which mosquitoes use to locate a potential host that could be more than 100 feet away.”

That potential host could be a person or another warm-blooded animal. Prior research by Riffell and his collaborators showed that smelling CO2 can “prime” the mosquito’s visual system to hunt for a host.

In the new research, they measured how CO2 triggers precise changes in mosquito flight behavior and visualized how the mosquito brain responds to combinations of olfactory and visual cues.

The team collected data from approximately 250 individual mosquitoes during behavioral trials conducted in a small circular arena, about 7 inches in diameter. A 360-degree LED display framed the arena and a tungsten wire tether in the middle held each mosquito. An optical sensor below the insect collected data about mosquito wingbeats, an air inlet and vacuum line streamed odors into the arena, and the LED display showed different types of visual stimuli.

The team tested how tethered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes responded to visual stimuli as well as puffs of CO2-rich air. They found that, in the arena, one-second puffs of air containing 5 percent CO2 — just above the 4.5 percent CO2 air emitted by humans — prompted the mosquitoes to beat their wings faster.

Some visual elements like a fast-moving starfield had little effect on mosquito behavior. But if the arena showed a horizontally moving bar, mosquitoes beat their wings faster and attempted to steer in the same direction. This response was more pronounced if researchers introduced a puff of CO2 before showing the bar.

To get a clear picture of how smelling CO2 first affected flight behavior, the scientists analyzed their data using a mathematical model of housefly flight behavior. The researchers repeated the arena experiments with a genetically modified Aedes aegypti strain created by Riffell and coauthor Omar Akbari, assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Cells in these mosquitoes glow fluorescent green if they contain high levels of calcium ions — including neurons of the central nervous system when they are actively firing. In the arena, the researchers removed a small portion of the mosquito skull and used a microscope to view neuronal activity in sections of the brain in real-time.

The team focused on 59 “regions of interest” that showed especially high levels of calcium ion levels in the lobula, a part of the mosquito brain’s optic lobe.

If the mosquito was shown a horizontal bar, two-thirds of those regions lit up, indicating increased neuronal firing in response to the visual stimulus. When the researchers introduced a puff of CO2 first and then showed the horizontal bar, 23 percent of the regions had even higher activity than before — indicating that the CO2 odor prompted a larger-magnitude response in these areas of the brain that control vision.

The researchers tried the reverse experiment — seeing if a horizontal bar triggered increased firing in the parts of the mosquito brain that control smell — but saw no response.

“Smell triggers vision, but vision does not trigger the sense of smell,” Riffell says.

The findings align with the general picture of mosquito senses. The mosquito sense of smell operates at long distances, picking up scents more than 100 feet away. But their eyesight is most effective for objects 15 to 20 feet away, Riffell says.

“Olfaction is a long-range sense for mosquitoes, while vision is for intermediate-range tracking,” Riffell says. “So, it makes sense that we see an odor — in this case CO2 — affecting parts of the mosquito brain that control vision, and not the reverse.”

In the future, Riffell wants to test whether other shapes affect mosquito behavior and activity in the optic lobe. Those results may further illuminate the hierarchical nature of mosquito host-hunting behaviors: smell first, then see. It may also provide new knowledge for mosquito control. So what’s the takeaway? Hmm, hold your breath and stay clean?

Check out my related post: What makes you attractive to mosquitoes?

Interesting reads:


  1. Another interesting post, ab. Really sensitive olfactory gear – detecting 4.5 % CO2. I struggle to imagine lopping the top off a mosquito brain and observing responses to various stimuli – but the use of engineered phosphorescent mutants is a stroke of genius.

    So… does mozzie repellent work by masking CO2 reception ? And what about fans scrambling air flow ? Or maybe a few warm blooded critters in mosquito-proof cages as decoys ?

    Also wondering whether rising CO2 levels will wipe out the less precise CO2 detecting mozzies.

    The mark of an interesting article is raising heaps of questions! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Therese, great questions and let me do some research on this. Off the cuff, fans should help in terms of dispersing CO2 and also literally blowing the little buggers away. Mozzie repellents mask the smell so the little fellas can’t “find” you. Let me do a post of this! A mark of a great reader is someone who gives great suggestions for new posts! Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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