We’re going on a mosquito hunt

Living Well | Peter Barrett | Posted on 15 July 2019

It’s all fun and games until someone gets a mozzie bite. 

So, there we were, sitting in our camp chairs at night, deep in the Toolangi mountain ash forest. Just me, my 10-year-old son and a large, indeterminate number of noisy, persistent and apparently invisible mozzies.

Perversely, though, all that incessant high-pitched whining was a good thing. Because tonight we were citizen scientists, on the hunt for mosquitoes and the “Wild DNA” they might be carrying.

Called Campfires & Science, a motley bunch of couples, individuals and families had signed up for the free overnight event (delicious vegan tacos included), which teamed us up with local scientists and researchers from the Australian National University.

Insects sitting on a tent

We were there to share knowledge around the campfire and test a theory: could we prove the existence of sugar gliders, greater gliders, leadbeater’s possums and other rare or endangered animals by trapping mosquitoes and analysing their blood for non-mozzie DNA?

Citizen science has been popular in other countries, such as Britain, for some time. It’s a chance for everyday people to get involved in doing research that helps preserve and protect wilderness areas – and the animals that live in them – by recording data.

The more data recorded, the more compelling the argument around land use and how governments make evidence-based decisions on logging, for example. It also saves money and allows science to be done that governments don’t have the budget (or political will) to do.  

For city slickers like us it was particularly eye opening. First, I was struck by how close the forest was – Toolangi is just over an hour from the city. Second, we learnt a new skill: how to be quiet. Part of the evening included a stag-watch, which I learnt has nothing to do with pre-marriage rituals.

For 40 minutes we sat in silence, our necks craned upwards to 100-plus-year-old trees, known as stags, whose various hollows provide potential cosy homes for critters. As we sat there, hoping that a few of the mozzies annoying us were making their way into the battery-powered, ultraviolet light traps we had laid for them, a sense of stillness and peace overcame the group.

Suddenly, in the windless trees above us came a rustle and I watched as a branch dipped under the weight of something. I couldn’t make out what it was but fortunately my son’s younger and fitter eyes were on the case. He’d just spotted his first sugar glider in the wild.

As for the DNA evidence, the results are still to come in. But if you’re interested in finding out more, visit scienceforall.world and get involved. Just don’t forget the insect spray.