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Stowaway mosquitoes threat to Galapagos wildlife

12 August 2009

Mosquitoes hitching a ride aboard tourist aircraft flying into the Galapagos Islands pose a major threat to the local wildlife according to research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The mosquitoes have the potential to carry diseases lethal to the many unique species of the Galapagos.

Scientists from the University of Leeds, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the University of Guayaquil, the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation have found that The southern house mosquito, Culex quinquefasciatus, regularly travel  from the mainland and breedwith existing populations.

The mosquitoes also move between islands aboard tourist boats, meaning  that incursions of mosquito-borne diseases are likely to spread throughout the archipelago.

The research consisted of of looking for insects in aircraft holds and genetic analysis of the mosquito populations. Using this information the scientists were able to work out the arrival rates of mosquitoes on aeroplanes and work out whether they were able survive and breed once on the islands.

According to the researchers the southern house mosquito is an important carrier of diseases such as avian malaria, avian pox and West Nile fever. Its introduction to Hawaii in the late 19th Century had a devastating effect on the islands' endemic birds. Only 19 out of 42 species and subspecies of honeycreeper now remain, and many of the extinctions are considered to have been caused by diseases spread by the mosquito.

The research highlights that tourism, a major source of income for the Galapagos, may come at a high price the Islands' unique ecosystems. The researchers say that with tourism growing rapidly, the future of the Galapagos will hang on the Ecuadorian government's ability to maintain stringent biosecurity protection for the islands.