The unique mosquito that lives in the London Underground

The unique mosquito that lives in the London Underground
PHOTO: AFP

Regular riders of the London Underground may bemoan the iconic and occasionally fierce tube mice. But there is another, smaller animal living in the Underground that is perhaps even more at home in the subterranean network - since it actually evolved in the unique conditions of the tube environment.

The London Underground mosquito is a genetically distinct subspecies. It was first reported during the Blitz of World War Two, when the Tube's tunnels were used as overnight bomb shelters. Over the course of the war, almost 180,000 people sheltered in the Underground. They were ravaged by all sorts of insects.

"The Tube then was a very different place than it is now," says Steven Judd, Head of Environment for the London Underground. With standing water and different pest controls, flies, ticks, lice and fleas were a lot more common than they are now, he says.

After the war, other than the odd complaint of biting made by maintenance workers, the mosquito received scant attention. That was until almost 50 years later when a London-based doctoral student decided to study these subterranean biters.

Katharine Byrne collected mosquitoes from seven sites across the 180km (110 mile) network. She found they were fundamentally different from their surface-dwelling relatives. While the above-ground Culex pipiens bit only birds, the Culex pipiens molestus - named for their tendency to molest - had a taste for human blood.

"The Culex is a very common mosquito," says biologist Bruno Gomes from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. "There are hundreds or thousands of types of them and they're not very harmful."

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