Mosquitoes transport liquid foods into the body using two muscular pumps in the head. In normal drinking, these pumps reciprocate in a stereotyped pattern of oscillation, with a high frequency but small stroke volume. Do mosquitoes modulate their neuromotor programs for pumping to produce different drinking modes? More broadly, what are the mechanical consequences of a two-pump system in insects? To address these questions, we used synchrotron x-ray imaging and fluid mechanical modeling to investigate drinking performance in mosquitoes. X-ray imaging of the pumps during drinking revealed two modes of pumping: continuous reciprocation with multiple small strokes, and a newly discovered 'burst mode' involving a single, large-volume stroke. Results from modeling demonstrate that burst mode pumping creates a very large pressure drop and high volume flow rate, but requires a massive increase in power, suggesting that continuous pumping is more economical for drinking. Modeling also demonstrates that, from one mode of pumping to the other, the mechanical role of the individual pumps changes. These results suggest that the advantage of a two-pump system in insects lies in its flexibility, enabling the animal to pump efficiently or powerfully as demanded by environmental considerations.
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