Like a lot of folks from my generation, I've been afraid of sharks since the movie "Jaws" first hit theaters in the late '70s. But while sharks sure look the part, the truth of the matter is that they don't even come close to being the world's deadliest animals. (In fact, there are many animals deadlier than sharks, so let's give them a break.)
So which animal takes that prize? When it comes to human deaths, no other animal comes close — not even humans themselves.
It's the mosquito.
How could a teeny little insect be so dangerous? After all, their bites may be a little itchy, but life-threatening?
It's not the bite, per se, it's the diseases transferred during the bite that make mosquitoes so dangerous to humans. Mosquitoes carry malaria — a disease that kills 400,000 people a year and sickens 200 million more — and that's not counting deaths from dengue fever, yellow fever, zika, West Nile and encephalitis, according to ISGlobal, the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. Adding up all the diseases, the final death count is closer to 725,000 a year.
In fact, it was the mosquito's killing prowess that prompted Timothy C. Winegard to write "The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator." The professor of history and political science at Colorado Mesa University declares that the mosquito has been the single most powerful force in determining humanity's fate. He estimates that over time, mosquitoes have killed 52 billion people.
NPR's Gabino Iglesias, writing a review of the book, points to a excerpt that aptly sums up the bugs' destructive power in great detail:
While the mosquito is miraculously adaptable, it is also a purely narcissistic creature. Unlike other insects, it does not pollinate plants in any meaningful way or aerate the soil, nor does it ingest waste. Contrary to popular belief, the mosquito does not even serve as an indispensable food source for any other animal. She has no purpose other than to propagate her species and perhaps kill humans. As the apex predator throughout our odyssey, it appears that her role in our relationship is to act as a countermeasure against uncontrolled human population growth.
They are also everywhere. Mosquitoes are present in every corner of the world except for Antarctica and during peak breeding season, they outnumber every other animal on Earth except termites and ants. So the danger to humans is widespread.
The good news is that unlike sharks, mosquitoes are easier to repel, and most mosquito-borne diseases can be avoided with vaccinations. Of course the trick is getting these vaccinations to the people who need them the most.
In his personal blog, Bill Gates shared the infographic below devoted to "these flying masters of mayhem," and he also writes about some of the work being done around the world to eradicate them.
Eradicating them would be an amazing feat. Then the only thing left for humans to worry about would be humans, themselves. And there's no vaccine for that.
Infographic courtesy of Gates Notes
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in July 2014.