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Splish Splat? Why Raindrops Don't Kill Mosquitoes

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Splish Splat? Why Raindrops Don't Kill Mosquitoes

Animals

Splish Splat? Why Raindrops Don't Kill Mosquitoes

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Just imagine how tough life would be if raindrops weighed three tons apiece as they fell out of the sky at 20 miles an hour. Well, that's how raindrops seem to a mosquito. So, how do they survive a downpour? NPR's Richard Harris has the answer.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Put yourself in a mosquito's shoes for a moment - or rain boots - and step outside into a downpour of seemingly gigantic raindrops.

DAVID HU: So they're basically, like plummeting comets falling all around you.

HARRIS: You'd think a mosquito wouldn't stand a chance. That's what David Hu and his colleagues at Georgia Tech thought.

HU: We expected a similar thing to happen as when you drive a car through bugs; you expect to see this bug just splattering.

HARRIS: Yet mosquitoes clearly survive close encounters with raindrops. The question is how. So David Hu's group set out to run an experiment that made the most of their skills as mechanical engineers and biologists.

HU: Hitting a mosquito with a raindrop is a difficult experiment. The first thing we did was, dropped small drops from the third-floor story of our building onto a container of mosquitoes. And you can imagine, that didn't go very well. It's kind of like playing the worst game of darts you can imagine.

HARRIS: So the team took the experiment inside. They fired jets of water drops at the mosquitoes, and recorded the results with super-high-speed video cameras. And they found that mosquitoes don't actually dodge raindrops; they hitch a ride.

HU: So as the raindrop falls, rather than resisting the raindrop, they basically join together - kind of like a stowaway - on this comet. So as a result, they get very, very little force.

HARRIS: To them, it's like getting hit with a feather. And they ride the drop for about a thousandth of a second, until their wings catch the wind like little kites and tear the mosquito away from the drop. And the mosquitoes don't seem to be any the worse for wear.

HU: Well, it's hard to see the expression on a mosquito's face, but they definitely survived. And most of them didn't even land. They continued flying, as if nothing had happened.

HARRIS: The results are published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." The real hazard for mosquitoes is, apparently, if they are flying very close to the ground. If they don't peel off from the raindrop in time, they live out that axiom about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

HU: For example, if you're standing on the ground and a piano falls on you, you basically get smashed.

HARRIS: David Hu expects that's what would happen to the mosquito. So what did they learn? Well, for those guys who are making flying robots the size of insects, as long as your robot is small enough, you don't have to worry about rain. For biologists, here's another exquisite example of how life has evolved to live on a planet that's inundated with fluids. And for anyone who might be tempted to kill a mosquito by swatting it in midair, it'll never work.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD")

B.J. THOMAS: (Singing) Raindrops keep falling on my head, but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning red. Crying's not for me, 'cause I'm never gonna stop the rain by complaining, because I'm free...

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