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Did that critter just bite me?

As a naturalist I wonder about things, sometimes obvious things, sometimes odd things, but always interesting things. Today’s thought surrounds interactions with insects, their kin and other critters that on occasion negatively interact with us. People often claim to have been bitten by an insect. “That mosquito just bit me!” But did it? Or did it just have an interaction with you which did not involve biting? Many animals, such as mammals, have large teeth and certainly can inflict bites as they pierce and tear the flesh of their quarry. Birds don’t have teeth but certainly have strong jaws that can be snapped shut and serious pain can ensue. I know this to be true from those days when I used to band birds. Don’t ever let the lovely Rose-breasted Grosbeak sample your flesh; they can be nasty! Some large reptiles and amphibians, although often toothless, can bite you with their strong bony jaws. Others, such as alligators and crocodiles, certainly have teeth and can inflict serious damage. Many fish; think about sharks, are notorious for their fierce bites. But do insects and other invertebrates have strong enough mouth parts or teeth to bite you? Short answer, yes, some do. So let’s consider a few examples for a moment. Why not start with mosquitoes? Only the female seeks a blood meal, as the males only have sucking mouthparts and cannot or will not even try to ‘bite’. The female, on the other hand, needs to penetrate the skin of warm-blooded mammals to get her meal. She uses her proboscis to pierce the skin and then suck the blood out through the small hole she made. Since the proboscis is actually a modified part of the mandible, should this be considered a bite? Black flies certainly inflict painful wounds to the skin, as do deer flies. Again, it’s only the females that seek a blood meal. Each tears a piece of flesh off the host and then sucks out the blood, leaving behind a bloody raw wound. Ants have strong mandibles and some (e.g. fire ants) can be very aggressive in their defence of a colony, clamping down with their strong jaws to break the skin. Spiders often have two piercing structures in their mouth that they thrust into prey or interlopers. Snakes are notorious for their fangs, which again penetrate the skin to inflict injury, while ticks pierce the skin using structures called chelicerae and then suck the host’s blood over a series of hours or days. Some types of mites, such as chiggers, can also inflict painful and itchy welts on the skin. Unlike other invertebrates that feed on mammals, chiggers don’t attach themselves to the host in order to suck blood. However, like mosquitoes and ticks, chiggers can induce a nasty skin reaction, which comes from the chigger’s saliva, that they use to break down and digest our skin cells and tissue. Leeches are not insects, but rather are invertebrates. Nonetheless, they are known for their ability to draw blood from host animals, doing so by using abrasive bony mouthparts to scrape the skin until it bleeds and then sucking up the liquid. Bees, wasps and hornets, and their kin, on the other hand, don’t use their mouths to inflict injury, but rather use their stingers. These are always located on the abdomen of the insect and are used in defence or attack. Crabs and lobsters can pinch you by using their claws, while jellyfish sting but use their tentacles, not their mouths. So where does that leave us? The definition of biting is “A skin wound or puncture produced by an animal’s teeth or mouthparts”. So, if we simply adopt that premise, as long as the animal uses its mouth parts in some way to penetrate the skin, for whatever purpose, then we can safely say we have been ‘bitten by it’. On the other hand, we should say that a “bee stung us rather than a bee bit us”. Thank goodness that’s cleared up! Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at and on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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