The Most Beautiful Fly in the World

I know that this might be controversial; after all, people generally either don’t think flies have any redeeming qualities (never mind “beauty”), or more likely for readers of this blog, have their own ideas of what constitutes a gorgeous fly.
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silver strat zerenea
I submit, however, that this amazing silver male stratiomyid (soldier fly) from Costa Rica is the most beautiful fly in the world. It moves around on the underforest leaves like an animated drop of quicksilver, flashing in the tropical sun. It is not garish, like some of the gaudy calyptrates I have seen (see below), but has a pure beauty in its clean, sleek metallic cover. Just in case you find this boring, it also has a scutellum decorated with spines, like the crown of royalty.

The name of this creature is Artemita aurata (Macquart), and it was described in 1846, so it is not anything new, but it deserves “rediscovery” by lovers of biodiversity everywhere.

Don’t agree with me? Let’s hear your nominations!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA gaudy calliphorid from Australia: a runner-up to the world’s most beautiful fly

Moving to micro four-thirds

holding camera

My new Olympus OMD EM1 camera with 60 mm macro lens. Look how small it is!

Insect photography can be demanding, time-consuming, and expensive. It can also be heavy, lugging around a big SLR camera, a couple of lenses, flash, batteries, and other equipment necessary to capture high-quality images. Often, when I am in the field, I carry a heavy backpack of camera equipment plus my collecting gear on the first day, but subsequently leave the camera at home because it is just too much stuff.

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Honey bee – sharp!

On a recent trip, miserable because of the heat of the tropics and the weight of my camera gear, I vowed I was finished with full-sized SLRs. I decided I would follow my technician Wendy Porras in moving to Olympus micro four-thirds (mft) technology. After all, these mirrorless cameras are half the weight, size, and price of a SLR, but have amazingly good image quality. The attached photo of honey bee won’t win any prizes, but you can see how sharp the images can be (an exceedingly important consideration for those of us photographing small flies). My new camera also has in-body image stabilization, which gives me a higher percentage of successful, non-blurry images.

Best of all, the camera is small enough to fit in a much smaller bag, and won’t be left behind when I need it in the field.

From now on, it is mft for me.

Forty-five seconds of fly swarming

One of my favorite museum exhibits is the round ceiling tank at the Monterey Bay aquarium, where a huge school of silver-colored fish swim in an endless circle. It is hypnotic, fascinating, and strangely calming.

Watching flies in a mating swarm can be that way too. Usually, it is a group of male flies we see, all jockeying for the best position in the air. Presumably, this allows arriving females to recognize those that are superior and choose the male in the “best” position for the one with which they will mate.

Thinking of the Monterey Bay experience, I wanted to document a fly mating swarm, and finally got the chance this summer. A group of empid flies (also known as “dance flies”) were flying in a brilliant shaft of light against a dark conifer background, perfect for my purposes. Let me know what you think of the result!

Flyobsession back online

After transferring from WordPress.com to my own site, flyobsession is back! Look forward to more stories and photos of our two-winged friends.

Pictured here is a male Adelopteromyia, a common phorid fly from the ZADBI project in Costa Rica (photo by Inna Strazhnik). The females of this genus are brachypterous (have reduced wings) and are found in army ant colonies.

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ps. This image looks much better full size- click on it to see.

Diptera Blitz wrap-up

EOL micropezidOf course, our event was a tremendous success. Some highlights:

- bat-netting by Carl Dick got us streblid records, bird-netting by Kimball Garrett got some hippoboscids.

- Carlos de la Rosa (the Director of the La Selva Biological Station) joined the team, working on chironomid midge pupal exuviae

- Michael Turelli, professor of genetics at UC Davis and (at least on this trip) amateur drosophilid collector gave a stunning talk about using the intracellular bacterium Wohlbachia to eliminate dengue

- the final event, a barbeque, featured a short film about the week by LACM videographer Edgar Chamorro.

Some photos follow, including a group photo of nearly all participants. These photos help portray not only the enjoyment, but also the dedication of the team to document as many Zurqui flies as possible. The results of their efforts will appear soon on this website.

group
Yes, nearly all these people came to Costa Rica to study flies! (click photo for larger view)

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LACM ornithologist Kimball Garrett releasing a bird after checking it for hippoboscids (bird louse flies)

Manuel Art Brian
Manuel Zumbado, Brian Brown, Art Borkent: three dipterological amigos

Diptera blitz continues

Uber-collector Wayne Mathis

Uber-collector Wayne Mathis

The 30 participants in the Zurqui all Diptera biodiversity inventory in Costa Rica have been pushing back our veil of ignorance about the fly fauna of tropical cloud forests. So far, we have spent two full days at the site (Zurqui de Moravia, 20 minutes north of San Jose), and one full day at our partner institution INBio. New species and even new genera of flies are being found everywhere we look. Some examples:

Collaborators Dr. Greg Curler and Sergio Ibanez have found a strange new type of psychodid (moth fly) that holds its wings unlike any other they have ever seen. Most moth flies hold their wings either flat over the body, or roof like over the body; this one inverts its wings over the body so that they make a trough. Significance? Who knows, but it is amazing that such a fundamentally different body form has been found. Last night, Curler hoisted some light traps up into the canopy of the forest to see what other strange things he could discover. Stay tuned for what he found.

Collaborator Dr. Wayne Mathis has been collecting for several days and has pushed our family list to 69 with this collection of diastatids (sorry, no common name), therevids, and anthomyzids, as well as boosting the list of shore flies (Ephydridae) to 26 species.

Netting bats at night has been particularly productive for inventorying bat flies. Dr. Carl Dick has added several genera and species to our list that would never have been included if we had only relied on Malaise traps and other standard insect collecting methods.

In a small raid of army ants, Anna Holden I collected some bizarre short winged phorid flies running around with the ants. These flies, genus Acontistoptera, have fully winged males that transport them in-flight among army ant colonies. We know this because the flightless females turn up in our Malaise trap samples along with their more mobile mates.

acont

A tiny Acontistoptera female

Yesterday, we spent the day in the lab at our partner institution INBio, where our collaborators could interact with our Costa Rican staff and examine some of the ZADBI material in the collection. Collaborator Dr. Jeff Skevington looked at our 34 specimens of pipunculids (big headed flies) and pronounced almost every one of them a different species! Little duplication means that there are many more new things still to find.

 

This is just a taste of what has transpired over the last three days; I’ll get more reports from our scientists today. Lots of ideas have been exchanged, plans made for the future, and scientific papers outlined for publication. Two days still to go!

Diptera Blitz!

Villa Zurqui grounds

Villa Zurqui grounds

Fifteen dipterists from around the world, plus grad students, parataxonomists, and other interested biologists, are converging on Zurqui de Moravia next week as part of our ZADBI (Zurqui All Diptera Biodiversity Inventory) project: our attempt to inventory all the flies at a single tropical site. Although we are collecting with a battery of traps and general techniques, we are relying on the years of field experience our collaborators possess to ferret out the hard-to-find species from our site.

Wayne (left) and Sergio

Wayne (left) and Sergio

Although the blitz does not officially commence until Monday, our first early arrivals were Wayne Mathis and wife Diane, who set off from our beautiful hotel, Villa Zurqui, this morning and came back this afternoon with about 13 species of ephyrdrids, plus one new family for the project, Diastatidae. Awesome start, Wayne!

Today, Sergio Ibanez & son Diego arrived from Mexico as part of the psychodid (moth fly) duo (along with Greg Curler, who will be coming soon). Tomorrow, we’ll all go to Zurqui and see what else we can find.

PS: see our project web site phorid.net/zadbi

A monster in the garden

bumble-bee-asilidThere is a voracious predator in our nature garden at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; luckily it is only about an inch long. It is a “bumble bee robber fly” of the genus Mallophora. It is hanging out on the kangaroo paws in the garden on the east side of the building. It picks off wasps and bees, injects them with venom and digestive enzymes, and sucks them dry. As I said, we can all be thankful that it is only an inch long, but it is beautiful and fun to watch!

New flies in town

asteiid drawer

asteiid drawer

The “new” collection of flies from Utah State University has arrived, and what a collection it is! The number of specimens and some of the cool species among the material surpasses my wildest dreams. Of course, we gave up a great collection to obtain this material, as documented in my previous blog (“Fly Specialization at the LACM”), but these new Diptera holdings are mesmerizing to me.

For example, in an earlier blog I wrote about finding the unusual family Asteiidae here on the Museum grounds. The supply was only our second specimens in the entire collection, yet look at the holdings from Utah State University! Half the tightly packed drawer of them-I guess they are not so rare after all.

tons of tachinids

tons of tachinids

More superlatives: seven drawers jammed with unsorted fungus gnats. Lots of tachinids (parasitic flies): about 40 unsorted drawers of them!

There was even a family new to our collection- the southeast Asian Nothybiidae. They look like a school of minnows heading upstream in the unit tray.

school of nothybiids

school of nothybiids

That’s the thing about this collection: most of it is unsorted and therefore full of potential for new species. As an example, amongst the phorids was the first-ever specimen of the genus Cyrtophorina from Central America, a new species of the previously well-known genus Anevrina from Mexico, and a few things that are just weird and unidentifiable to me at this time.

To be sure, this is a collection that only a dipterist would love (and some people I show these photos to shudder in dismay), but part of the incentive for doing this exchange was to stimulate interest in the LACM fly holdings. Hopefully, this brief report will help do so,