Revealed: the questing, flexible, ramified business-end of a mosquito

Valérie Choumet at Paris's Institut Pasteur anaesthetized a mouse, stuck a microscope in a flap of its skin, and induced a mosquito to bite it. The result is the best footage yet of the weird, flexible, questing mouth of a mosquito, which can bend and twist and fork as it seeks out blood vessels.

From afar, a mosquito’s snout might look like a single tube, but it’s actually a complicated set of tools, encased in a sheath called the labium. You can’t see the labrum at all in the videos; it buckles when the insect bites, allowing the six mouthparts within to slide into the mouse’s skin.

Four of these—a pair of mandibles and a pair of maxillae—are thin filaments that help to pierce the skin. You can see them flaring out to the side in the video. The maxillae end in toothed blades, which grip flesh as they plunge into the host. The mosquito can then push against these to drive the other mouthparts deeper.

The large central needle in the video is actually two parallel tubes—the hypopharynx, which sends saliva down, and the labrum, which pumps blood back up. When a mosquito finds a host, these mouthparts probe around for a blood vessel. They often take several attempts, and a couple of minutes, to find one. And unexpectedly, around half of the ones that Choumet tested failed to do so. While they could all bite, it seemed that many suck at sucking.

Here’s What Happens Inside You When a Mosquito Bites – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science [Ed Yong/National Geographic]

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