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Sunday, September 17, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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If You Like Mosquitoes, You'll Love Taking A Swat At Alaska

Contestants in Finland recently asserted a world's record by killing 15 mosquitoes in five minutes.

What a pathetic claim.

There is Finland, and then there is Alaska. And up on the North Slope the skeeters are big, dumb, insatiable, and innumerable. Macho stuff, except it is the females that bite, to feed their eggs.

You've heard Alaska mosquito stories before: monstrous size, horrible buzz, ravenous clouds, etc., etc.

They're all true.

There are at least 200 million insects for every human on Earth, and I swear I met all of them. The patter of their flight against my tent sounded like rain.

Scientists at the North Slope's Toolik Lake said the summer of 1995 was the worst mosquito year in living memory, a claim Richard "Skeeter" Werner, a Forest Service insect-research expert based in Fairbanks, backs up.

"It's the worst year I can remember," he said, speculating the recent mild winters in Alaska may be responsible. Global warming strikes again.

North Slope mosquitoes are pushy. They drive caribou herds to arctic beaches and moose to gravel parking lots. They feed on hares, lemmings, even frogs.

Not to mention humans.

"They play a major role in the food chain," Werner noted.

Their primary sustenance is plant juices - they only need blood to lay large numbers of eggs - and they are fed on in turn by birds and fish.

Individual mosquitoes live only about two weeks as adults, but hone in on hiking humans by picking up their silhouette, body heat and smell. Researchers cultivate a protective, accumulating layer of repellent and grime like armor.

The bugs' distracting whine is music to male mosquitoes, who are attracted to the sound caused by the beating of female wings up to 500 times a minute. They mate in mid-air, explaining some of that seemingly aimless cavorting.

Mosquitoes on the North Slope use humans as a handy windbreak, using backs and shoulders like a makeshift aircraft carrier and clustering shoulder to shoulder as if auditioning for a horror movie.

So how do the wimpy Finns and their "record" of 15 swatted mosquitoes stack up against the competition in Alaska? Stream hydrologist Bruce Peterson of the Marine Biological Lab had a graduate student whack his back a single time in early July while in a willow thicket on the Kuparuk River. Official count of dead mosquitoes: 171. An all-time record!

Not for long, however. A few days later a visiting scientist named John Porter from the University of Virginia wore a black jacket in a light drizzle into the tundra bog. Bad, bad combination. Slap count: 209 mosquitoes. Porter went away impressed.

Even that record stood only for hours. While fishing, graduate student Chris Harvey proved even more irresistible: 270 in one slap.

And there were lots, lots more left over.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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