Male and female tsetse flies feed exclusively on vertebrate blood. While doing so they can transmit the diseases of sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in domestic stock. Knowledge of the host-orientated behavior of tsetse is important in designing bait methods of sampling and controlling the flies, and in understanding the epidemiology of the diseases. For this we must explain several puzzling distinctions in the behavior of the different sexes and species of tsetse. For example, why is it that the species occupying savannahs, unlike those of riverine habitats, appear strongly responsive to odor, rely mainly on large hosts, are repelled by humans, and are often shy of alighting on baits?
A deterministic model that simulated fly mobility and host-finding success suggested that the behavioral distinctions between riverine, savannah and forest tsetse are due largely to habitat size and shape, and the extent to which dense bushes limit occupiable space within the habitats. These factors seemed effective primarily because they affect the daily displacement of tsetse, reducing it by up to ∼70%. Sex differences in behavior are explicable by females being larger and more mobile than males.
Habitat geometry and fly size provide a framework that can unify much of the behavior of all sexes and species of tsetse everywhere. The general expectation is that relatively immobile insects in restricted habitats tend to be less responsive to host odors and more catholic in their diet. This has profound implications for the optimization of bait technology for tsetse, mosquitoes, black flies and tabanids, and for the epidemiology of the diseases they transmit.
Tsetse flies and other blood-sucking insects spread devastating diseases of humans and livestock. We must understand the host-finding behavior of these vectors to assess their epidemiological importance and to design optimal bait methods for controlling or sampling them. Unfortunately, mysteries abound in the host-finding behavior of tsetse. For example, it is strange that visual cues are more important for species found in riverine habitats, where dense vegetation restricts the range of visual stimuli, whereas olfactory cues are more important for species occurring in open savannah. To explain this paradox, we used a deterministic model which showed that restricted riverine habitats can reduce tsetse movement by up to ∼70%. This, and the fact that movement increases with fly size, can explain why savannah tsetse, especially the larger ones, rely relatively greatly on olfactory cues, are particularly available to large stationary baits, are repelled by humans, and often investigate baits only briefly without alighting on them. The results also explain why tiny, inexpensive, and odorless baits can control riverine tsetse effectively, whereas larger odor-baited devices are needed against savannah tsetse. These findings have important bearings on the study of host-finding behavior in other blood-sucking insects, including mosquitoes.