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!

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,

Giant flies with giant names

Kirks pantophthalmid

A Brazilian pantophthalmid. Yes, it is real.

Some of the largest flies in the world belong to a family called (believe it or not) Pantophthalmidae. The tongue twisting nature of this name aside, the English name “giant wood-boring flies” seems less impressive. They are found only in the Neotropical Region (South and Central America), where they are uncommonly collected, usually at light or on freshly cut wood. Although frighteningly large, these flies are utterly harmless. Their larvae, however, bore into dying or dead trees eventually growing to a large enough size to produce the iconic adults.

I have seen exactly two living adults of these flies, but recently in Costa Rica, we came across evidence of many more. We were staying at a resort oriented towards birders called “Hacienda Baru” that is situated close to sea level on the Pacific coast near Playa Dominical. It was hot and humid there, and the biting midges were fierce, but we made it through a few days before fleeing to the highlands.

Along the trails were logs cut from tree falls, and in some of them were living and freshly abandoned pupae of pantophthalmids. In the log photographed here, I counted 65 exit holes alone, and some other trees in the vicinity had hundreds of holes drilled by the larvae of these flies.

panto

empty pantophthalmid pupa

For those interested in encountering large numbers of giant wood-boring flies, Hacienda Baru should be the first place on your list!

DSC_2494

log full of pantophthalmid borings

(I thank Kirk Fitzhugh for the first image).

How to get rid of flies, part 1

This must be the most frequently asked question about flies, and although it is not really my field, I feel compelled to comment on it. After all, as much as we appreciate and admire our two-winged friends, they can be annoying to downright deadly at times. So, for those suffering from from an affliction of Diptera, here is a tentative key to fly problems I have faced.

NOTE 1: An “affliction” is more than the odd fly or two. Most fly problems are avoided by the commonsense practices of using screens on windows and keeping trash outdoors.

NOTE 2: My advice is for entertainment purposes only; I do not pretend to be an expert on fly control and I cannot respond for requests to help with fly problems. Please contact a licensed pest control professional.

Key to Fly Problems:

1. The fly problem is indoors… go to lead 2
-. The fly problem is outdoors… will be in part 2 (next blog)

2. Big grey, grey and black striped flies, or metallic blue or green flies suddenly appear in large numbers, usually attracted to the daylight at windows… Answer: 1) Something has died in or under your home (frequently a rat). Look for and dispose of carcasses. Be aware that this problem will go away in a week or two as the flies go through the food. 2) If this occurs in early spring or on warm winter days (where winters are cold), it is more likely these are overwintering cluster flies that have been “awakened” by warm temperatures. You need to seal around window casings (the usual entry point) to prevent them from entering the house.

– Smaller, less chunky flies… 3

3. Hairy, mothlike flies with broad but pointed wings (see photo below)… Answer: You have flies called moth or drain flies. Their larvae live in the accumulated sludge in your drains. Clean the drains and they should go away.

– Flies not so hairy and wings not pointed… 4

4. Small yellowish flies slowly hovering hovering over fruit, wine glasses, or open trash… Answer: Pomace or vinegar flies (genus Drosophila), also commonly known as “fruit flies”. Attracted to odors of decay, especially fermentation. Get rid of the decaying material, clean up trash, and the flies will quickly go away.

– Flies not yellow, or if yellow, run quickly and do not slowly hover… 5

5. A group of flies forming a swarm (a group of flying individuals), gently zig-zagging, always in flight in doorways, alcoves, or the center of a room… Answer: Lesser house fly males have come in through an open door or window. They are harmless and will disappear in a few hours. Window and door screens will prevent this.

– Not forming a swarm indoors… 6

6. Black-winged, tiny gnats that seem to be attracted to lights, or strangely, to the pages of a book you are reading at night. They seem to gently fly or “dance” against the pages or whatever surface. Associated with house plants… Answer: Dark-winged fungus gnats are breeding in the soil of your house plants. They are harmless, but potentially annoying. If they become unbearable, try watering the plants less, or getting rid of the most affected plant.

– Flies not dark winged, not a gentle fliers, not associated with plants… 8

8. Flies usually run, not fly, in a distinctive “stop-go” pattern. When they fly, the flight is direct, not slowly hovering. Color various, but often with yellow… Answer: Phorid flies are in your house. Either something has died in the walls, where the bigger blow flies cannot get to it, you have a sewage leak under your house, or some other situation is amiss. Call in the professionals if they are overwhelming.

– Anything that gets to here is in the category of less common “pests” that need to be diagnosed on an individual basis. Different flies affect the indoors in a variety of ways in other parts of the world. I would be happy to read any accounts that differ from what I have written here.

next blog: outdoor fly pests

Getting lucky

Collecting flies while they are mating is a surefire way to establish conspecific identity. Many female phorids are extremely different in appearance than the males (search this site for lots of examples), and linking the two together can be almost impossible, based on morphology.
< Borgmeieriphora in copula

Borgmeieriphora in copula oblique

In this case, we have a pair of Borgmeieriphora collected in a Malaise trap by Wendy Porras in Costa Rica. The females are wingless, reduced creatures, which however have a sharpened, parasitoid type ovipositor. They lived in army ant colonies, but are rarely collected. The only large series of specimens known is a group that I caught over such ants at La Selva Biological Station many years ago. The males were flying over the ants, carrying the females, as many phorids do. Since then, males have shown up frequently in trap samples, but until now females almost never. This new capture was surely a huge stroke of luck, because most mating pairs separate before they die in the alcohol.

Something “new ” for Central America

When in Brazil a few years ago, my team of Giar-Ann Kung, Wendy Porras, and I found the spiny, brachypterous (short-winged) females of phorid genus Pheidolomyia. These flies, which live in the nests of the ant genus Pheidole, were only known from Brazil. Once back home in Costa Rica, however, Wendy quickly found them there, too. This demonstrates two important principles of dipterology: 1) Wendy is a great collector, and 2) our knowledge of the distribution of tropical flies is extremely fragmentary.

A female Pheidolomyia from Costa Rica - photo by Inna Strazhnik

A female Pheidolomyia from Costa Rica – photo by Inna Strazhnik

After I remarked on yet another interesting “South American” phorid fly showing up at La Selva Biological Station during the ALAS (Arthropods of La Selva) project, the ant ecologist Jack Longino agreed with me, only partly joking that “if you collect long enough at La Selva, you get the entire Neotropical fauna!” Now, that’s a hypothesis that would be fun to test.

Fly specialization at the LACM

We are doing something a little daring, but certainly exciting here at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. We have decided to specialize on flies.

drawer-of-flies drawer of unsorted flies from the LACM collection

Why would we do this (besides because we are obsessed)? Most insect collections are comprehensive, trying to house as big a variety of all groups as possible. Basically, we want to to become one of the best Diptera collections in the country, or even the world. You can’t do that unless you are ready to give up something else. For us, it is future growth in non-target groups, like butterflies and beetles. We’ll take care of what we have, but we are not accepting any more.

An even more radical version of the specialization involves exchanging away non-Diptera parts of the collection. To do this, you need to find other like-minded institutions that wish to grow in a similar way. In our case, we found a first partner in the Utah State University, especially with Dr. James Pitts. There, Dr. Wilford Hansen has built an excellent collection of mostly Neotropical Diptera. The current staff of their entomology department, however, is more interested in Hymenoptera, and this spring we are doing a large-scale exchange of USU Diptera for LACM Hymenoptera (exclusive of ants and bees).

This exchange includes about 600 drawers of material on each side. It more than doubles our holdings of general Diptera, not including our already major collections of Phoridae, Blephariceridae, and Neotropical Psychodidae. It also makes USU a major Hymenoptera collection, a truly win-win arrangement.

Exchanges can quickly change the face of the collection, but they are expensive. Moving 600 drawers to Logan, Utah, and bringing same number back to Los Angeles will cost about $4000 and lots of staff time. Still, this is much less money than that required to build a 600 drawer collection from scratch, and we are thrilled by it.

I foresee the possibility of more such exchanges in the future for the LACM, and welcome inquiries from curators who feel that such an arrangement would benefit their collections as well.

Peacock fly

This is a message to my from my friend, biologist Lynn Faust:

Just for fun, am sending you this photo of a cool little fly that put on quite a show for me last May near (not in) the traps in the Smokies. He landed on the roof of my car and proceeding to fan his wings like a peacock and slowly turn and preen. Every time I scared him off with my camera, he circled and returned and spread his wings again. This went on for 30 minutes until I finally needed to leave. I never saw another fly (female) so it was as if he(?) was displaying for me. Of course I did not know what type of fly he was at the time, but just on a guess, googled “peacock fly” and found very similar photos in the Tephritidae family. So, I am asking nothing, just sharing this fun photo since you love flies. Sorry it is not a phorid! Lynn Faust

peacock-fly

Actually, it is a ulidiid, not a tephritid, and a very entertaining one! Thanks, Lynn.

Collecting weird lesser dung flies

I suppose I could have come up with a better title, but with all due respect to my friend and mentor Dr. Steve Marshall, the family Sphaeroceridae does not often lend itself to superlatives. You wouldn’t know this from reading his recent book, Flies: the natural history and diversity of Diptera, however, in which Steve gushes appreciatively about the hordes of dingy, drab brown flies that swarm over cow pies. He reserves special appreciation for the subfamily Homalomitrinae, a group he co-described with his colleague Jindrich Rohacek. These flies, unlike their relatively dull relatives, are bizarre looking creatures, with reduced wing venation, flattened heads, and thickened leg segments. The original specimen was a female collected with army ants in Brazil in 1930; others were found to be attracted to lights. The six known species are organized into three genera: 4 species in Homalomitra, 1 species in Sphaeromitra, and one in Podiomitra. There are fewer than 20 specimens known.

podiomitra-2

Look at the strange head, unusual “feet”, and incredibly reduced wing venation on this fly. Amazingly, we have collected at least three more already in our All Diptera Biodiversity Survey in Costa Rica, all from light traps. It will be interesting to see what other strange creatures are uncovered by our intensive survey of this tropical cloud forest. (photo by Inna Strazhnik).