Home of the world’s smallest fly

The world’s smallest fly (0.40 mm long) was collected at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand, the country’s largest.

It is a beautiful place with hot lowlands and misty highlands where the forests are crawling with land leeches.

There are many large mammals in this park, including leopards.

We conducted a training course for the Thai parks staff who would be helping us; here is Mike Sharkey leading the group on how to properly use a Malaise trap. The fly, Euryplatea nanaknihali, was collected by one of the many traps placed in this field.

Worlds smallest fly discovered

In a paper appearing today, Monday, July 2, 2012, I describe the world’s smallest known fly. It was collected during the TIGER (Thailand Inventory Group for Entomological Resources) project, funded by the National Science Foundation with the grant to Dr. Michael Sharkey of the University of Kentucky and me (as co-PI).

Many stories about small things, especially parasites, quote Jonathan Swift:

“So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.”

In this case, the quote is especially apt, because the newly discovered worlds smallest flies are parasites!

The smallest fly in the world is a member of the family Phoridae, and is one of the “ant decapitating flies”. Adult females lay an egg in the body of an ant, and the resulting larva feeds in the ants head, eventually causing the decapitation of its host. Some of these flies are being used to attempt biological control on imported fire ants, and were even featured on an episode of the popular television show “King of the Hill”.

Because these flies usually develop in the head of their host ant, they are smaller than their hosts. One would think that the smallest ants would be therefore immune to these nasty parasites, as their heads are vanishingly small. But the world’s smallest fly is one of these ant killers, and at the astoundingly small body length of 0.4 mm, these flies can probably decapitate ants with heads as small as 0.5 mm. That is pretty close to the smallest size that ants can get!

When we think of animals that are small, usually a fly or a flea come to mind. Let’s forget about fleas; they are comparative monsters at around 1-2 mm in length. But what about flies?

The common house fly is something that we think of as being small. In the world of tiny insects, however, they are virtual Godzillas at a whopping 6 mm.

Many flies are much smaller than this. Fruit flies that you see hovering over overripe bananas, for instance, are about 2 mm long, one third of the size of the “giant” house fly.

Some of the biting flies are much smaller than this. One aptly named family of flies has the common name “no see ‘um”, because of their almost invisibility when they are biting you. These flies are getting really small, usually around 1 mm in length.

The world’s smallest fly is 0.4 mm in length. Here is a microscope slide, 1″ x 3″ size, with the holotype specimen of the fly mounted on it. It’s unimaginably small, smaller than a flake of pepper you shake out of the pepper shaker.

holotype specimen of Euryplatea nanaknihali Brown

Do you see it, within the small circle, to the right and slightly above center?

The world smallest fly doesn’t really look like a fly. It’s one of those weird phorids whose body form we call “limuloid”, after Limulus, the horseshoe crab. It is a defensive body form that allows the flies to live in the ant nest which, based on this body structure, is probably part of the fly’s life. It has short wings, but they are functional sized, so this fly could easily fly from ant nest to ant nest. It also has a sharply pointed tip of the abdomen, indicating that it is a parasitic species.

My research is funded by the National Science Foundation, currently grant No. DEB-1025922.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

More microfraction miracles

I call these “miracles” not in the religious sense, but in the unlikelihood that I would notice them in a “normal” sample with all the macro-garbage obscuring them.

The first is a male, perhaps of the genus Metopina, with the thick costal vein almost as long as the wing.

Metopina group male

Next is a bizarre female termitoxeniine that has not yet shed its wings.

female termitoxeniine

A relatively “normal” wingless female Chonocephalus.

female Chonocephalus

Finally, a flattened male of a new phorine genus with a short costa.

new phorine genus

And I still have many more vials to look through! Life is good.

All photos were made by Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is a superb artist.

Microfractions rule!

I am sorting through a bunch of Malaise trap samples from Thailand from which all the insects larger than about 2 mm have been removed. The absence of larger insects makes all the tiny ones stand out, so these samples, the “microfraction” are golden. They are full of treasures: usually overlooked tiny things like Chonocephalus, termitoxeniines, and weird Metopina group males. I’ll publish more photos soon, but here are a couple I photographed previously.

a Metopina group female

new phorine genus

Note the shieldlike crest on the back of the head in the second photo. Totally bizarre.

Microfractions represent yet another largely unexplored frontier of tropical phorid diversity. After nearly 30 years of doing this, I can still be amazed and awed by “my” flies.

A brief respite from photography posts: another bizarre phorid

My friend in New Zealand, Hugh Oliver, saw the picture of the wingless female phorid in my last blog post, and asked for more photos of weird phorids. I didn’t even know he was looking at my blog, but just for him I am posting this photo of an extremely bizarre specimen we found just this week in material from Thailand. I think it is a female of the genus Rhynchomicropteron, but if so, it is an extremely unusual one! Thanks to Lisa Gonzalez for pointing it out to me, and Inna-Marie Strazhnik for photographing it. Maybe it can be number 16 in Terry Wheeler’s posts about why flies are great.

female Rhynchomicropteron?

Weird female Phoridae – Part 3: World’s weirdest fly?

Females of the genus might be the weirdest flies on earth. I don’t say this lightly. Like everyone else, I gazed in open mouth shock at the pictures in Naturewhen it was first described. The fly looks exactly like an ant larva with the head and thorax of a phorid fly glued onto it. And, oh yes, the wings and legs are absent!

female Vestigipoda

Later, researchers published photos of these adult female flies being carried about by their host ants, apparently treated just like the ant larvae. And how did they know they were adult females, you might ask? Well, they published a photo of a slide mount of one of the flies with an egg coming out the end of the reproductive tract.

This is one of the wonders of the natural world, as far as I’m concerned. I have never seen one alive, but my colleagues Henry Disney and Munetoshi Maryama were kind enough to send me some specimens.

The flies are found in nests of the southeast Asian ant genus Aenictus, with specimens from Malaysia and Thailand having been recorded.

An extremely weird new phorid fly from Thailand

The group of flies that I work on is called the Phoridae. They’re one of the most diverse, yet poorly known groups of flies in the world. They have some crazy body forms and crazy life histories, some of which I’ll share in this blog.

This is a amazingly weird, probable new genus of phorid fly collected by a Malaise trap in Thailand. Mike Sharkey, from the University of Kentucky, and I had a 3 year grant from the National Science Foundation to inventory insects in Thai national parks. Among the material collected, as you might imagine, are many new species and new genera, since very little collecting this type has been done in Southeast Asia.

Look at the scutellum on this thing- it’s almost as big as the scutum! The wings look like those of some phorids that enter termite nests and tear off their wings, since they’ll be in the nest for the rest of their lives. The lack of large bristles, and the general shape of the body also implies that this fly lives in social insect nests. Unfortunately, we only have one specimen. It would be really interesting to see the female of this species!