The Current

From the fall of Rome to gin and tonic: How the mosquito 'shaped our history'

Author Timothy Winegard tells about his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. It's abuzz with facts about the insects, including the role they played in creating gin and tonic, and how the Nazis tried to utilize them in the Second World War.

Malaria-carrying insects are also 'our most deadly predator,' says author Timothy Winegard

Dry weather means fewer mosquitoes will torment Calgarians this summer, says University of Calgary's John Swann (Canadian Press)
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If you had to choose humanity's greatest natural predator, would you pick sharks? Maybe lions, or bears — or even other humans?

According to author Timothy Winegard, it's actually that winged terror — the mosquito.

In his new book, The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, he argues that the mosquito — and the diseases it carries — has played a remarkable role in shaping our own development, from the birth of the gin and tonic, to the fall of the Roman Empire.

One or two mosquitoes buzzing around your room may keep you awake at night, but in a large enough group they can actually be lethal.

"The mosquito swarms in the Arctic can literally, and they do, bleed young caribou to death at a bite rate of roughly 9,000 per minute," Winegard told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

That's equivalent to draining "half the blood of an adult human in about two hours," he said.

A baby caribou and its mother at the Calgary zoo. In the wild in the Arctic, the youngsters can fall victim to swarms of mosquitoes. (calgaryzoo.com)

However, it's the diseases that mosquitoes carry that Winegard said makes them "our most deadly predator."

For example, Winegard said that sharks kill fewer than a dozen people every year. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 470,000 homicides annually.

By comparison, thanks to contagions like malaria spread by their bite, "mosquitoes [kill] upwards of almost 2 million a year, by far and away the deadliest animal."

Your smelly feet are a mosquito aphrodisiac 

If you feel you get bitten more than people around you, then unfortunately it could be your DNA that's making you a mosquito buffet.

"Blood type O is her vintage of choice, over types A and B, or their blend," Winegard explained.

Sweaty or smelly feet can attract mosquitoes, Tim Winegard said. (Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)

The insects are also attracted by the chemicals and bacteria on a person's skin, including lactic acid produced by the body, and the amount of CO2 you produce.

"Stinky feet, the bacteria on our feet, are a mosquito aphrodisiac," he said.

There are some external factors: bright clothing and certain fragrances will attract them, as well as your tipple of choice.

"We don't know [why], it's a mystery, but the research is showing that beer drinkers attract mosquitoes," he said.

In his new book, Timothy Winegard argues that the mosquito has shaped our history in ways we don't appreciate. (Penguin Random House)

Thank the mosquito for the G&T

In Ancient Egypt, people bathed in human urine to keep malaria at bay, while in the Roman Empire they prayed to the fever goddess Febris, and wore amulets around their necks inscribed with the word abracadabra. 

At the time, Winegard explained, many believed the diseases came from "toxic air emanating from standing water and swamp lands."

The link between mosquitoes and malaria was not discovered until the late 1890s.

But the varied attempts in history did result in one popular invention: the gin and tonic.

That story starts in the early 1800s, with the realization that a compound called quinine could fight malaria — even though doctors at the time still didn't realize it was being spread by the insects.

A few decades later, when the British colonized India, they brought powdered rations of quinine along with them.

"Quinine is very bitter, so they mixed quinine with tonic water," he told McCue.

"And then they added gin to cut the bitter taste — and I'm guessing certainly for its intoxicating effect as well — and the gin and tonic was born in India." 

The Colosseum, one of the most recognizable surviving ruins of Ancient Rome. The city was once protected by a 'malarial shield,' Winegard said. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Insect's role in rise (and fall) of Rome

Winegard believes the insect "has shaped our history far more than we appreciate," pointing to Ancient Rome as an example.

The city was once surrounded by 310 square miles of wetland, called the Pontine Marshes.

"These were an absolute malarial hotbed," Winegard said

"Armies coming to attack Rome — beginning with Hannibal and the Carthaginians, and then the Visigoths, Attila and his huns, and the Vandals — couldn't essentially either take or hold Rome because of this malarial shield."

Malaria started to suck and bleed Roman vitality.- Winegard

But while at first these patrolling malarial mosquitoes helped to protect the city, eventually the spread of the disease throughout all of what is now Italy had the opposite effect.

"Malaria started to suck and bleed Roman vitality" as farmers, miners and soldiers succumbed, he said, calling the disease "one factor in facilitating the collapse of the Roman Empire." 

Winegard said that in the Second World War, the Nazis hatched a plot to weaponize malaria. (Penguin Random House)

Nazis tried to weaponize mosquitoes

Historical records show that military leaders including Napoleon tried to weaponize marshland, without realizing it was the mosquitoes that lived there that posed the real threat.

During the Second World War, while the Allied troops pushed into Italy in 1943, the Nazis tried to stop them by unleashing their own malarial weapon.

The Pontine Marshes had been drained by Benito Mussolini prior to the war, cutting malaria rates in Italy by 90 per cent. 

"The Nazis purposefully, as an act of deliberate premeditated biological weaponry, reflooded the Pontine Marshes around Rome and Anzio to bring back malaria mosquitoes," Winegard said.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal

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