A living fossil from South America

Vladimir and I sorting in the field

Hard-core dipterists know all about Sciadocera, the Australian and New Zealand fly that seems to bridge the gap between platypezids and phorids. It was immortalized by the drawing Harold Oldroyd included in his 1964 book “The Natural History of Flies” which was entitled “the most wonderful fly in the world”.

Less known is the New World species, found in South Chile and Argentina. Called Archiphora patagonica, this species is similar, but smaller than Sciadocera, and more brown in color. Hennig described a second species of Archiphora from Baltic amber, and declared that genus to have been once widespread, and now relictual in the southern hemisphere. A few years ago, I re-examined the Baltic amber fossil and showed it was probably not congeneric with A. patagonica. There are, however, three species of Baltic amber Sciadocerinae (the group is now considered part of the Phoridae), and others possibly from older amber, so it is reasonable to refer to the two living species as “living fossils”.

Elvia and Vladimir getting discouraged

I needed to collect fresh specimens of Archiphora patagonicafor a molecular project in which Dr. Paul Smith and I are trying to understand the phylogeny of phorid flies using DNA sequences. A couple of years ago, I went to southern Chile with two assistants: my old friends Vladimir Berezovskiy from here in Los Angeles and Elvia Zumbado from Costa Rica. Together, we spent three weeks scouring the forests looking for this fly. We ran Malaise traps in sites where Canadian hymenopterist Masner collected some in the 1980s, with no luck (we knew we weren’t catching them because we sorted the samples in the field, looking for the flies). Since Masner also did a lot of sweeping, we swept for hours in forest undergrowth, dumping our net contents in a bowl of soapy water and searching for the elusive flies. In a fit of inspired desperation, Vladimir even grew a beard like Masner’s to try to appease the phorid gods. We collected at a number of sites on the mainland, as well as on Chiloe Island, where we found most of the forests that Masner collected in to be gone. We even looked up the former farm of Chilean entomologist Luis Peña, where the remains of his field station still exist, and swept there extensively. We got a lot of interesting phorids, but no Archiphora patagonica.

Peña's farm

At least, that’s what we thought until we got home. When I went to the samples with a microscope, I was elated to find a single male specimen from Peña’s old farm that eluded our field sorting. Although we eventually ground the specimen up for sequencing, we took some nice photos of this fly, which show that it too is one of the “most wonderful flies in the world.”

our single Archiphora specimen