Sunday, January 20, 2013

Creature Feature: Picture-Wing Flies.

Flies are really taken for granted. Sure, they land on our food, but it's only because we leave it out for them. Without flies, the world would be covered in dog poop. In more than one sense, they're garbage men for the entire planet - it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.

But did you know that flies can also be gorgeous? As in, comparable to birds-of-paradise?

That is one of several (111) species of picture-wing fly found only on Hawaii. They are closely related to the common fruit flies around the world, and are so named for the patterns that the males have in their lacy wings. Several of these fly species are endangered or threatened, which are in turn important to equally-endangered plant species on the island. Yes, these flies are nectar-drinkers and pollinators- just like hummingbird, butterflies, and fuzzy-wuzzy bumblebees. They're sounding cuter already.

Compared to the 1000-something species of fruit flies in existence, 111 species is not a lot, nor should it be a surprise. It only takes two fruit flies for there to suddenly be millions on an island. If the Center for Biological Diversity is correct, those 111 picture-wing species came to Hawaii only 5 million years ago from one egg-bearing female- even more stunning than if a male had been present. They reproduce faster than rodents.

Fruit flies also have simply amazing genetic potential. That's why they're so horribly popular in genetic studies: they breed like crazy and have a million mutations to play with.  Lek courtship is unusual in insects, and is far more common in birds, which have more potential for elaborate courting rites...or so we thought.

When the rapid breeding rate and genetic potential of the fruit fly is brought to an island, the flies flourish. What were once ravenous pests suddenly become nectar-drinking, dancing insects with beautiful wings. Even humans do not change that radically in such a short amount of time. These must be Beelzebub's personal entertainers, if I must make a reference to Lord of the Flies. Flies may annoy us on the mainland, but they aren't all bad.

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