Keep your eyes on the flies

[This is a guest post by Lisa Gonzalez, one of my field team members.]

Lisa Gonzalez in demonstration mode

Lisa Gonzalez in demonstration mode

Last week I had the incredible honor of joining a small team that included Wendy, a parataxonomist; Inna, a scientific illustrator and videographer; and Kat, an accomplished amateur photographer; under the guidance of the respected Dipterist Dr. Brian Brown, to the lush lowland tropics of Costa Rica on a phorid fly foraging expedition. Our goal was to record and observe parasitic phorid fly behavior– in particular to begin unraveling the mysteries surrounding certain phorid flies in the genera Apocephalus and Dohrniphora— as well as collecting any specimens that struck our interest.

My first trip to this beautiful, magical country was 10 years ago, but every day that has gone by since has been a day that I have anticipated returning. So suffice it to say I was beyond excited at the prospect of spending entire days under the forest canopy, scanning the ground and leaves for parasitic phorids and their specific hosts.

People who know me know that my passion for insects runs deep, but I still get an occasional incredulous glance, a slightly furrowed brow or a polite smile and shrug from my non-entomologist friends as I explain that the vast majority of our trip will be dedicated to looking for 3 mm sized flies (even though they know it is part of a scientific project, as in, WORK.) No zip lines, no sipping mango margaritas on the beach –sugar on the rim, hold the salt!– no waiting for a quetzal to fly by for that perfect photo op.

No, my friends, we will be looking for flies, cool parasitic ones, because they are out there, lurking in the jungle, waiting for someone to observe them doing things that are infinitely more fascinating to me than the showiest toucan or the noisiest oropendola. Somebody needs to give them the attention they deserve!

After a morning cup of that fine, fine Costa Rican coffee, we used the help of the phorid flies themselves, namely their incredible ability to detect the alarm pheromones of their hosts. We searched the tree trunks and undergrowth for the specific types of ants that serve as the hosts (Odontomachus sp. and Paraponera clavata in this case) so that we could collect them, crush them, and thus attract the flies we so anxiously sought, a technique that Brian serendipitously but no less ingeniously discovered 20 years ago.

As the flies started to hone in on the chemicals released by the distressed ants, I felt myself becoming completely entranced by the miniature drama unfolding at my feet. This is the point where I struggle to find my mental middle zone, maintaining a focus on the flies while not becoming too tunnel-visioned; still being aware of my surroundings since, after all, we are in a jungle with stinging ants and wasps everywhere, and an occasional venomous snake, but most importantly, not wanting to miss any phorid action on the sidelines.

Keeping your eyes on the flies and not being distracted by bedazzling morphos or adorable sloths (my goodness, they ARE cute!) reaps great rewards for anyone with even a modest interest in animal biology and biodiversity. For an entomologist, or those willing to scale down their perspective and peer into the microcosmos, it is a truly awesome experience to see a minute female fly risk her own life by attacking an ant at least twice her size, desperately needing a place to lay her egg (or eggs), using a variety of bodily tools, such as ovipositors shaped like sabers or mouthparts serrated like knives. These females are so alert and nimble, like little ninjas, and although the outcome of their efforts, which results in decapitation or an “‘Alien’ chest burster” style host death depending on the phorid species, may seem cruel to our human sensibilities, I see a brave and resilient mother struggling to care for her young (that’s a whole lot of anthropormorphism for one sentence, I know!)

Brian decided to expand our efforts in the field on this trip by collecting female phorids and hosts and observing them in captivity in our make shift lab. He very generously put me in charge of this part of the project, proclaiming that I am “good at keeping bugs alive” from my years spent as the museum’s insect zoo technician, a professional extension of the top secret insectary I kept in my closet when I still lived with my parents many years ago. After several days of working out humidity issues, adding extra masking tape for the sneaky escape artists, and trying to provide a stress free environment for the flies to “go about their business,” we were able to observe some provocative behavior in captivity. Some preliminary work was done with the species Dohrniphora conlanorum, and we successfully reared larvae of Apocephalus paraponerae. I was alone in the lab when I first spied the chubby little bundles of maggot-y joy in the abdominal cavity of the Paraponera ants, and in my solitude was able to get up and do my celebratory maggot dance without shame. The pure excitement over seeing a world that most people rarely stop to notice, the thrill of something new on the other end of your scope, is greater than a million zip line adrenaline rushes or brain-in-a-jacuzzi delicious tropical rum buzzes to me. I am so elated to have been a part of this project, and I hope you enjoyed my attempt to briefly describe that elation. Now to start counting the days until I return once more…

6 comments to Keep your eyes on the flies

  1. Russell Cox says:

    Amazing tale, your passion and natural story telling skills are very infectious and greatly enjoyed

  2. Very cool report even without zip lines or mango margaritas cum sugar on the rim – hold the salt – and chill it to 35.2〫F.

    I’m as anthropomorphic as the next guy. But who knew I could develop feelings for a struggling fly mom?

    Tony

  3. John Hash says:

    Your “attempt to briefly describe that elation” was successful. I enjoyed reading your post.

  4. poethelena says:

    Loved this post. Lisa, you do such a wonderful job translating this experience that even a non-bug lady can really enjoy learning about your research!

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