Pump Priming Project AV-PP0028 Joerg Albert

ANTI-VeC funded projects: In the eye of the swarm 


ANTI-VeC awarded 10 pump-priming projects up to £100,000 at the end of last year, the majority of which are now under way. One of these projects led by Professor Joerg Albert at University College London explores the acoustic landscape of mosquito swarms and the mosquitoes' acoustic behaviour within the swarm. We caught up with Joerg to find out how the project is progressing.

Briefly describe the project for us?

"Many significant mosquito species mate within swarms, with acoustic communication between males and females playing an important role in their courtship. Our project investigates the acoustic landscape of the mosquito swarm and explores its impact on mosquito behaviour."

What are the unknowns/gaps in knowledge that you are investigating?

"Our knowledge of mosquito hearing and acoustic communication has improved significantly in the past decade. However, the overwhelming majority of publications have focused on isolated mosquitoes and have neglected the environment and influence of the swarm. We are therefore directing our attention on the swarm itself in order to try and translate the findings based on individuals to a group environment."

When did the project begin and what have you explored so far?

"The project began at the start of 2019. We have so far devised novel microphone arrays that can be inserted into groups of mosquitoes to generate recordings within a laboratory setting. In parallel, we also try to get an idea of how individual mosquitoes, and even individual mosquito ears, respond to different sounds. It is our main goal to help form a more coherent view of mosquito auditory ecology which can then be used to improve vector control strategies."

How are you and your partners working together to realise this project?

"The next major step in the project is to take the microphone set-up from the lab to the field. Our partners at the Ifakara Health Institute host semi-field facilities that can help with this translation. We will spend time in Tanzania working together in both these semi-field facilities and in the field itself, locating mosquito swarms and then measuring their resulting acoustic emissions. Also, and most importantly, a member of the Ifakara team, Mr Watson Ntabaliba, has visited us in London earlier this year. His advice will be crucial to create the best possible, and field-proof, recording setup."

Is there an example of evidence/data that has surprised you from your experiments so far?

"One surprise - and it is almost a surprise that it surprised us - is how mosquito auditory biology can be bafflingly complex and deceptively simple at the same time. They mostly operate with pure tones but their ears respond primarily not to these pure tones but to pure tone distortions which are produced actively within their ears. The behavioural and physiological responses of mosquitoes seem tuned to a rather narrow range of frequencies at any moment in time, but over periods of few seconds – or only hundreds of milliseconds - they can change their sound emissions (wing beats) dramatically."

What are you hoping the completed project will tell us? 

"In mosquito auditory biology, understanding how the two phenomena of (i) a narrow frequency selectivity and (ii) a spectrally wide range of sound signals are physiologically coordinated, and integrated, seems to be the nut to crack! We are confident however that this will provide the key to understanding, and manipulating, mosquito behaviour, and lead to novel acoustic lures, repellents or other vector control interventions. 

By improving our knowledge of the acoustic landscape of the swarm, the results generated as part of our project will also help to design fitness assessments to test the swarming capabilities of genetically modified mosquitoes."

You can hear more about this project from one of its co-investigators Marta Andres Miguel at ANTI-VeC’s 2nd annual meeting, where she will be a speaker. Go to our events page for a list of current speakers and to register.