The title’s dramatic, but there’s an opportunity for you to help monitor the spread of potentially deadly-disease-carrying Kissing Bugs. You can be a citizen scientist, an epidemiologist, and a nature hero, all while doing what you probably already do: observing nature at home and at your favorite outdoor places.
There is a family of bugs called Assassin bugs (the scientific name of the family is Reduviidae). A small subset of these are in the genus Triatoma. An even smaller group of species within this genus may carry Chagas disease, which is an uncommon disease, but worthy of attention. What does this have to do with you? Texas A&M University is studying the spread of the disease, and they need eyes on the ground. Your eyes.
What can you do?
- First, stay calm. This isn’t a huge health crisis. It’s just an area of study and interest.
- Read this informative brochure about Triatoma and what info Texas A&M needs if you find one.
- Continue your nature observations in your favorite places, and get in contact with Texas A&M if you find species that look like Triatoma (contact info is in the brochure link). Actually, based on my experience this week, you may want to contact them just to let them know you’re looking.
- Watch for bugs like this:
My Recent Experience
Because a friend let me know about this new study, I had Triatoma on the brain as I was helping with a wilderness survival camp for kids at LLELA (led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas). When one of the campers saw a cool bug, I recognized it as an Assassin bug. I thought it looked a lot like Triatoma, so I carefully encouraged it into a little container I had.
I took photos of it and sent them to Texas A&M. In a very short time I had an answer back: the little guy/gal wasn’t in Triatoma after all. I could release it! (Good thing; I didn’t want to have to kill it, even if it was a dangerous offender.)
Interestingly, Texas A&M wanted the location of the bug, even though it wasn’t in Triatoma. In graduate researcher Rachel Curtis’ words:
We are trying to build some models to map where kissing bugs can be found in Texas. Along with all the kissing bug locations we have, we need some “known negative locations”. These are locations where people (like you!) are looking for kissing bugs, but not finding any. We have a way to randomly generate locations, but it is best to include actual locations where we know people are looking for kissing bugs.
So you may want to contact Texas A&M to let them know you’re looking, even if you’re not finding anything. This may be a case of “no news is good news.”
After all this excitement, I made my third ever contribution to iNaturalist with these photos:
After a few responses to my photos and request for help with the ID, I think what I found is a Bee Assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).
Moral(s) of the story:
- You do NOT have to kill first and ask questions later.
- It’s great to have friends who are in-the-know about nature and the news.
- Citizen Science opportunities abound!
- It’s good to have your camera with you.
- iNaturalist can be a great source of identification help… as long as you have a reasonable quality camera.