What Dipterology Needs (in my opinion)

There is a lot of excitement about molecular phylogeny, DNA “barcoding”, whole genome sequencing, and other high-tech advances that will enable us to better understand flies (and other organisms). Doubtlessly, this is where the big money and prestigious Science articles will be concentrated. But for those of us working with whole animals, and not just their DNA, there are a different set of priorities that are no less important. Understanding the world’s Diptera biodiversity at the organism level requires (in my opinion) the following:

Brian Brown collecting in Argentina in 2003

1) More exploration, more collecting. We live in a time of great opportunity. There is easy availability to go to previously remote and inaccessible parts of the world, and to make collections there. On the other hand, other people can get there too, cut the forest, and cause the extinction of thousands of species.

 The tropics, especially, are undercollected and under threat. Huge areas of the world, even if there are well-known for vertebrates and showy butterflies, still have not had their fly faunas extensively sampled.

Collections need to grow if we are going to document life on this planet. Museums need to plan for this type of growth, and curators need to push for it.

I could go on and on about this point, but I think most of you who are reading this are already part of the choir.

2) More study of life history and larvae. The immature stages and way of life of most species of flies are unknown. Terrestrial fly larvae are all but unidentifiable past the family level, and some families do not even have any larvae described. What each fly species does during its larval stage is almost equally poorly known. What are we going to do with all of the phylogenies being generated if we don’t know life history information about our organisms to plug into the framework?

parasitic phorid (Apocephalus ritualis) approaching leaf cutter ant host

3) More study of Baltic amber fossils. Diptera are the most frequent inclusions in 40 million year old Baltic amber. Most paleontologists can only dream about seeing intact specimens of their organisms. We, on the other hand, have the window into the past. I know all groups of flies are not common in amber, but those that are found there need to be integrated with our knowledge of extant flies. There are still huge deposits Baltic amber that have been untouched, and museums have thousands of specimens waiting to be examined by experts in the modern fauna.

Those are my priorities. If you have others, feel free to comment. I have some ideas about how to push these agendas forward, if dipterists can continue to work together.

female Myriophora sp. (Phoridae) on injured millipede

3 comments on “What Dipterology Needs (in my opinion)

  1. Your sermon is good, you should preach more.

    The first thing I can think of adding is that the character systems in female flies need to be studied further. In some families the females can’t even be identified to genus under current knowledge!

  2. Hey, I’m just now reading through this blog, it’s great, I wish I could have responded when this topic was new. I agree with your priorities, but there’s no need to marginalize phylogenetics- “What are we going to do with all of the phylogenies…”

    Molecular phylogenetics helps us with both species descriptions, as it offers another useful source of data in addition to morphology, ecology, and biogeography, and with natural history molecular phylogenetics offers a way to associate life stages and sexes. More natural history data will contextualize phylogenies, and more complete phylogenies will allow us to discover more about natural history. It’s trite, but we’re all in this together!

    • phoridae says:

      Hi Keith,

      I don’t think that I am marginalizing molecular (or any other) phylogenetics, something that is an integral part of my research; more than enough effort is being put into this area. My priorities are what I think we need more of, and includes phylogenetic needs- taxonomic representation and characters. Collections are vastly inadequate, forest is being cut down rapidly (you should see the situation here in Rondonia), and phylogenies are being made without the input from larval and fossil characters (which are badly needed, in my opinion). We are losing or not using key sources of phylogenetic information.

      You could argue that eventually all we’ll need is the right molecular information and we’ll be able to solve all phylogenetic questions, but I am skeptical. For instance, a friend of mine working on one of the AtoL grants told me “the molecular tree is beautiful, unassailable, but when you look at the Baltic amber, everything gets f***ed up.” Few molecular-only trees that I have seen could not use more morphological help (and vice versa) if our goal is understanding groups and their evolution.

      Anyway, we agree, and thanks for your comment, and for reading.


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