It was a windy and cold morning. The sky was covered in light grey clouds and a gentle rain was falling down our coats. The plan of the day was to visit a coffee plantation, and then hike up in the mountains to be able to see the differences in forest composition at different altitudes. I was part of a group of seven explorers (Carlos, Anne-Sophie, Perry, José, Brandon, Kari, and me) that wanted to reach the top of the mountain, and Ceci, who is an IGERT student but who is also working in a plot in those mountains, drove us to a place where we could start our hike.
I would say that the beginning was easy: we walked a trail in the lower forest, and were amazed to see how the bamboo, introduced in Panama, was doing so well. The more we hiked, the more we could see the transformation of the forest composition: less bamboos, more epiphytes, mosses, and lichens.
The slope was getting very steep, but the feeling of accomplishment and of being above the clouds kept our motivation to go on climbing. We finally reached the altitude of 2800 meters, proud of ourselves, and after a few pictures and some sandwiches, we decided to go back down.
The story could end here: we found our friends, got back to the bus and drank delicious coffee while looking at the marvelous rainbows that characterize the sky of Boquete. Nonetheless, there is more to add to this adventure. We thought that we made the way back just the seven of us, but in reality, we were probably more than one hundred to go back to the bus. Let me present you the real protagonists of this anecdote, ladies and gentlemen: THE CHIGGERS.
The chiggers are a species of mites belonging to the Trombiculidae family. There is more than 30 genera of chiggers and they are basically everywhere in the world. Their life cycle comprises four stages and in order to complete its development, the parasitic larva attaches itself to a host until it is fully engorged with the tissue fluid. Unfortunately for us, we are part of the vertebrate hosts that the chiggers like to bite. The day after our hike, I woke up with almost twenty bites on my shoulders and around my neck, and discovered later in the day way more on my back, ribs, and bellybutton. Anne-Sophie seemed to have won the contest though, for she had a perfect line of bites running all around her chest. Everyone was red, everyone was itchy.
Why so many bites? The larvae hide mostly in the ground and attach to the boots of hikers. When you hike in chiggers’ high density places, you collect a lot of them, and these little creatures then seek comfy and dark places of your body to start feeding. There are several solutions to avoid the bites. Number one is to wash your clothes directly after the hike and use the dryer at high temperature. Number two is to take a hot shower, and scrub your skin as hard as you can with soap. Number three is to have great friends that will delouse you (like monkeys do), by removing the tiny red larva that you can spot in the middle of the bites.
In the new world, chiggers don’t transmit any diseases, but in Asia chiggers carry a bacterium responsible for a form of Typhus called the Scrub Typhus and a lot of the research is thus focused on this particular region of the world.
Sasa M (1961) BIOLOGY OF CHIGGERS. Annuv. Rev. Entomol., 6, 221–244.