The white-tailed phorid, Megaselia albicaudata

It is amazing to me that some phorid flies are found in multiple environments around the world. Less surprising are the scavengers that live mostly in human-built structures or that need scraps of our civilization to thrive. Usually, these scavengers are well-known to us, through their large numbers and occasional nuisance status. But what about the”white-tailed phorid” (I just made that name up, based on the Latin name!), an obscure but seemingly ubiquitous fly?albicaudlatsmall

There is no question that this 1.5 mm long fly is well-named: the male genitalia are a shocking white in comparison to the rest of the rather dingy brown body. It was described in 1910 from England, and is well-known from other parts of the world such as Finland, Israel, and China. It is also found in the two big fly inventories that I am part of: the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s urban biodiversity project called “BioSCAN” and the Costa Rican “ZADBI” project in a tropical cloud forest.

How can a species live in such disparate climates and habitats? Nobody knows, just as nobody knows what the larvae of this fly eat. I have looked at specimens from both North America and Costa Rica, and I am sure they are morphologically the same species, not two species masquerading as one doing different things in different places. It is one of thousands of Megaselia worldwide that we know nothing about, but discovering phorid lifestyles is part of our* phorid research effort. Obviously, we have a long way to go when such a widespread species remains a mystery.

*Note, when I say “our”, I mean the few people worldwide actively pursuing phorid research, including our group here at LACM, consisting of Emily Hartop, Lisa Gonzalez, and me.

Windows

No, not the operating system. I’m talking about physical windows in a building. If some doors, other windows, or even the whole side of the building are open, windows can be fantastic places to collect flies. Like most dipterists, I go right to the windows of any building I am in, to see what is there. Sometimes, people look at me as if I am crazy, but I forgive them because they just don’t realize how cool flies are yet (top to bottom, a ropalomerid, stratiomyid, and tababid).

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Wendy Porras and I just got back from La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, where half of the dining room is wide open, while the other half has screened windows throughout. We found a lot of extremely photogenic flies, some of which I show here. We put them in a more pleasing background than screening, wrangled them to sit still, and got the shots we wanted. A little honey on the leaves helped, as some flies were apparently hungry after several hours of banging their heads against metal cables.

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

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.

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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

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.

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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!

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log full of pantophthalmid borings

(I thank Kirk Fitzhugh for the first image).

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.

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.

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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).

Phorid flies and frogs

Phorid flies are characterized by my colleague, Henry Disney, as the most biologically diverse family of insects. With each passing year, we find more and more unusual lifestyles and larval food preferences that support this statement.

Female Agalychnis spurrelli. Photo by R. Horan III


In the New World tropics, there are a huge variety of frogs found in rain forests. Many of them live in the canopy and come down to the ground level only for mating. Often they lay their eggs on leaves over water bodies, apparently to try and limit depredation by aquatic predators. This creates an opportunity for phorid flies.

My co-author, Robert Horan III, found that eggs of the gliding leaf frog, Agalychnis spurrelli, were turning a strange white color in his study on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Further investigation showed that maggots of a small fly were eating the eggs. He reared some adults, sent them to me, and they turned out to be a new species that we named Megaselia randi. The name was a tribute to an influential herpetologist, Stan Rand, who helped Robert in his early career.

Healthy frog eggs. Photo by R. Horan III.

Infected frog eggs. Photo by R. Horan III.

This is not the first instance of phorid flies feeding on frog eggs in Latin America. Frogs in two other genera, Phyllomedusa and Leptodactylus, are also attacked. A colleague of mine recently contacted me about a frog egg feeding species in Ecuador.

Phorid larvae in eggs. Photo by R. Horan III.

There are probably thousands of species of Megaselia in the Neotropical Region, most of which are unknown, and the lifestyles of the 350 or so known species are also relatively unstudied. It is possible that among them there are a whole range of flies attacking frog eggs. Herpetologists, keep the possibility of phorid flies in your mind!

Reference: Brown, B.V. & R.V. Horan, III. 2011. A key to Neotropical Region frog-egg-feeding species of Megaselia (Diptera: Phoridae), with a new species from Panama. Contributions in Science. 520: 1-4

Phorid parasitoids of endangered ants also endangered

When ant-decapitating flies have endangered hosts, they become endangered, too. Today in the journal Zootaxa, I describe three new species of phorids found by my co-authors Marcos A. L. Braganca, Diego S. Gomes, Jarbas M. Queiros, & Marcos C. Teixeiras. The three flies attack Atta robusta, a species of ant found only in restinga (sandbank) vegetation in a small area in Brazil. Two of the flies are Eibesfeldtphora species, while the other is a Myrmosicarius; all are parasitoids developing in the ant’s head. We don’t have photos, but I am taking the opportunity to show a couple of fabulous photos of another Eibesfeldtphora attacking leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica by Wendy Porras.

Eibesfeldtphora curvinervis about to attack a leaf cutter ant. Photo by Wendy Porras.

The fly laying an egg into the ant’s head through the occipital foramen (neck). Fabulous photo by Wendy Porras.

Terrifying photos. If these flies were the size of crows we’d never leave our houses!

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.