A mosquito’s a mosquito, right? Not when it comes to Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Only two of the estimated 3,000 species of mosquitoes are capable of carrying the Zika virus in the United States, but estimates of their precise range remain hazy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scientists could start getting better information about these pesky, but important, insects with the help of plastic cups, brown paper towels and teenage biology students.
As part of the Invasive Mosquito Project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, secondary-school students nationwide are learning about mosquito populations and helping fill the knowledge gaps.
Simple experiment, complex problem
The experiment works like this: First, students line the cups with paper, then fill two-thirds of the cups with water. Students place the plastic cups outside, and after a week, the paper is dotted with what looks like specks of dirt. These dirt particles are actually mosquito eggs, which the students can identify and classify.
Students then upload their findings to a national crowdsourced database. Crowdsourcing uses the collective intelligence of online communities to “distribute” problem solving across a massive network.
Entomologist Lee Cohnstaedt of the U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinates the program, and he’s already thinking about expansion. He said he hopes to have one-fifth of U.S. schools participate in the mosquito species census. He also plans to adapt lesson plans for middle schools, Scouting troops and gardening clubs.
Already, crowdsourcing has “collected better data than we could have working alone,” he told the Associated Press.
Zika is active mostly in the Americas and has been linked to severe fetal brain defects such as microcephaly.
In addition to mosquito tracking, crowdsourcing has been used to develop innovative responses to a number of complex challenges, from climate change to archaeology to protein modeling.