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Petite guppies,

humming mosquitoes

and retreating Malaria.

Dr. Krishnaja A.P.

21July 2012.

Petite guppies, humming mosquitoes and retreating Malaria.

Sitting at the computer table during twilight hours, the sharp sting of mosquito bites on my hands and legs and the terrible itching that followed suddenly reminded me of guppies. The twilight hours are when mosquitoes enter our homes in hordes, accompanied by their humming high-pitched ‘music’. The mosquitoes bring back memories of my favourite Gambusia, nicknamed ‘mosquito fish’ and my days at the Institute of Science in the late ’70s. Ever come across guppies? Most of us consider guppies as aquarium fish. Agreed, some of them are pretty enough to be in our drawing room aquariums. But what I love about guppies is that they love mosquito larvae. Guppies have been introduced into streams, rivers, lakes and other water bodies in many parts of the world just for the purpose of mosquito control. With their petite bodies flashing in the scummy water of gutters and drainage ponds, guppies exhibit an amazing ability to live in warm, stagnant, low oxygen waters. Besides their penchant for mosquito larvae and tolerance of stagnant waters, guppies have another endearing quality — their prolific reproductive capacity. One pair is enough to produce more baby guppies than you can handle. Guppies are livebearers and inexpensive, provided you avoid the ‘fancy’ flashy guppies meant for drawing rooms. First discovered in 1866 by Robert John Lechmere Guppy in Trinidad, it was named Girardinus guppii later in the same year. One of the most popular aquarium bred fishes, guppies are notable for their unique beautiful patterns and colours — you will rarely find two guppies that are exact copies.

Use of fish in mosquito control has been in vogue for almost a century now. The two exotic larvivorous guppies Poecilia reticulata and Gambusia affinis have been widely used in mosquito control programmes around the globe, for the last five to six decades. The guppy, a native of South America, was introduced in India in 1908. Gambusia affinis, a native of Texas with wide distribution world over, was imported from Italy in 1928. Bombay’s history of larvivorous fish for malaria vector control dates back to early 20th century. The Mumbai muncipal corporation even now continues to have an active programme employing guppies. Further strengthening of this programme by introducing

guppies in all gutters and stagnant water bodies, as part of a bioenvironmental strategy for malaria control is now required.

strategy for malaria control is now required. Gravid female Gambusia affinis Anopheles Poecilia

Gravid female Gambusia affinis

control is now required. Gravid female Gambusia affinis Anopheles Poecilia reticulata The guppy Poecilia


is now required. Gravid female Gambusia affinis Anopheles Poecilia reticulata The guppy Poecilia reticulata, belongs

Poecilia reticulata

The guppy Poecilia reticulata, belongs to the subfamily Poeciliinae (livebearers) in the cyprinodontiform family Poeciliidae. Gambusia affinis and Gambusia holbrooki are also members of the same subfamily. The genus name Gambusia is derived from the Cuban Spanish term gambusino, meaning useless. This ‘demon’ guppy is also known as “Damnbusia!” (McCullough C.D. 1998: The voracious mosquitofish: Gambusia or Damnbusia? Forest & Bird November: 20-21. 1 & 2).

Highly prolific livebearers, the gestation period of a guppy is between 21–30 days, with an average of 28 days, depending on water temperature. Guppies exhibit sexual dimorphism. Wild-type females are grey in colour, while males have colourful splashes, spots, or stripes. After the female guppy is inseminated, a dark area near the anus, known as the gravid spot, enlarges and darkens. The eyes of the tiny fry can be seen through the translucent skin in this area of the female’s body, just before birth. During the birth process, individual offspring are dropped in sequence over the course of an hour or so, something that’s quite interesting to observe.

Guppies have 23 paired chromosomes including a pair of sex chromosomes. The Gambusia affinis population we examined showed 24 paired chromosomes, i.e. 23 pairs of acrocentrics plus a small pair of submetacentric (metacentric?) chromosomes. Heteromorphic sex chromosome pair was not found in this population. These specimens were later identified as G. affinis holbrooki by British Museum London (personal communication). The absence of female heterogamety in G. affinis holbrooki with a 2n = 48 as reported earlier is in conformity with the fact that G. affinis holbrooki was the

species introduced in India for distribution in antimalarial work (personal communication). (Krishnaja, A.P. and M.S. Rege, 1983. A cytogenetic study on the Gambusia affinis population from India. Cytologia 48:47-49).

Care should be taken while introducing mosquito fish in water bodies where they can migrate to habitats endangering native species. The unwanted ecological repercussions of an introduced species can be negated if native fish are used instead of the exotic ones mentioned above. Research reports are available that support the use of native fish species as alternative methods for mosquito control, finding them superior to Gambusia. (Rupp, R. 1996: Adverse assessments of Gambusia affinis — an alternate view for mosquito control practitioners. Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association 12: 155-159).

Humming mosquitoes: The four developmental stages of mosquitoes are egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The larval and pupal stages are spent in water. Mosquito species normally lay their eggs on the surface of water. Since water bodies are abundant, the process of hatching eggs and developing larvae continues uninterrupted. Some species deposit eggs on moist surfaces such as mud or fallen leaves. Rain re-floods surfaces and stimulates the hatching of the eggs, starting the life cycle. Mosquitoes take approximately one week to develop from egg to flying adult. Only the female adult mosquitoes thirst for human blood after emerging from the aquatic stages. Adult mosquitoes mate, and females then seek a blood meal to obtain nutrients necessary for egg development. Adult male mosquitoes feed on plant nectar and die shortly after mating. While various species differ, the average life expectancy for adult mosquitoes is four to six weeks.

Construction is a major activity in cities like Mumbai. There is abundant scope for water collection in and around the construction sites: The layer of water on the surface of the cement concrete (used for ‘curing’ the concrete and left as such for three weeks), puddles of water at the site, and of course water stored in tanks — all of these promote mosquito breeding. Construction workers often tend to harbour the malarial parasites, due to the poor standards of living at such sites, leading to frequent infections. Thus construction sites are a major hub for mosquito breeding, supply and circulation of the malarial

parasites — one reason why malaria tends to be more common in cities where construction activities are on in full swing. Trying to rear guppies in these water bodies will be a good idea — one step forward in vector control.

Retreating Malaria: According to a science congress report and to quote Dr V.P. Sharma, former director of India’s Malaria Research, introducing fish like guppies was one of the main reasons for decrease in malaria cases each year in India. From more than two million, they have come down to 1.8 million. The World Bank has a programme in 100 districts using the fish and the real impact can be ascertained only after five years. The fish had virtually eliminated malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes from some districts, though the strategy did not seem to work everywhere. This standard approach to malaria control later fell into disuse with the successful introduction of insecticides like DDT in the last century. Unscrupulous use of insecticides further led to insecticide resistant mosquitoes.

Many districts in India had undertaken mass production of Poecilia reticulata and Gambusia affinis for mosquito control. Mass production of Gambusia affinis was undertaken in Nainital in Uttaranchal and Shahjahanpur, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Large stocks of Poecilia reticulata were established in Naidad, Gujarat and BHEL, Hardwar. Guppies were extensively used for the control of mosquito breeding in Kheda district. Innovative methods have been developed to reduce the cost of mass production and distribution of fish.

Biological Control: The mosquito larvae eating fish help control the mosquito population. Poecilia and Gambusia can be introduced into all potable water bodies like wells, tanks, ponds and lakes. They can also be introduced into paddy fields in rural areas. The fish can also be made available to the public for use in potential mosquito larval habitats. Cost is a supportive factor here. Supplying ponds with guppies is a cheap alternative to buying insecticides. Certain bacteria, for example, Bacillus sphaericus and Bacillus thuringiensis var israelensis, are also used as effective larvicides. Bacillus thuriengensis israeliensis (BTI) toxic to only mosquito larvae can be

used in a variety of formulations. However, the need for culture expertise, reintroduction every 15 days and consequent cost are major deterrents.

Malaria control takes up a substantial slice of India’s health budget, largely through buying insecticides. Insecticides used in mosquito control have harmful effects in target as well as non-target populations. The development of insecticide resistant mosquitoes is a serious offshoot. The recent resurgence of different mosquito borne diseases has made it imperative to explore various viable options. The eradication of mosquitoes using pesticides, adulticides is not a wise strategy. The adult stage can escape remedial measures easily as it often occurs in human habitations. Simple sustainable methods of mosquito control are really the need of the day.

Compared to chemical control strategies, the use of biological control allows substantial cuts in chemical treatments, inspection effort and reduce costs and manpower required to meet mosquito control targets. Integrated pest management is preferable from an ecological perspective and is clearly superior economically as well. Public involvement and prompt action is needed for broader application of the integrated strategy. Use of larvivorous fish as part of an integrated vector control strategy is feasible, appropriate and cost-effective, resulting in a major reduction in antimalarials and insecticide consumption.

We need to look at biological methods of mosquito control with a fresh perspective and try to explore its full potential. I would rather prefer the guppies any time, than the thick white fume rings emanating from the BMC cylinders, engulfing my third floor flat in a haze (if windows are not shut in time) and further rising into the sky to merge with the clouds. For the uninitiated, uniformed BMC workers swoop down on your place like extra terrestrials, laden with tubes, masks and cylinders, ready for a major coupe — promptly we go underground! When the ETR retinue retreats, sheepishly, I must admit, I heave a sigh of relief, emerge quietly like an even bigger mosquito that had surreptitiously escaped the extra terrestrials and open the windows to let in some premium fresh air. Then I long for my favourite guppies — let us welcome back the

petite Gambusia and Poecilia or any other native species as our allies in this mission. Until then, let’s hum along with the mosquitoes in peaceful coexistence…

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