Fly guy

Brian Brown can discover a new kind of fly anywhere. He often takes up the search in exotic locales such as New Zealand, Chile or Taiwan, but he’s not picky. Once, he was challenged to find a new species in a Los Angeles backyard. After setting a trap and waiting, he pulled out a winner: “Turns out it was a new species, the first thing I pulled out of there,” he says. And it wasn’t a fluke. The second fly was a member of a species previously known only in Europe.

This thick-headed fly is just one of many fly species recently spotted on a patch of insect-friendly Baccharis, or coyote bush, in downtown Los Angeles. B. Brown

Courtesy of B. Brown

Compared with a common housefly (left, shown larger than actual size), the world’s smallest fly, E. nanaknihali (center), is a mere speck. The tiny fly (magnified in illustration, right) is less than half the size of a flea. © Inna-Marie Strazhnik

A self-described novophile, Brown says he and fellow fly lovers “are junkies for the new and different.” So far, he has discovered about 500 new species. “Finding the new species isn’t the problem; it’s finding the time to describe them all,” says Brown, an entomology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Brown (left) shares his dipterology exploits on his blog, called flyobsession, where his admiration is obvious. “Most people think flies are disgusting, horrible creatures that we should eradicate,” he says. “I think they’re incredible.”

In his writings and research, Brown focuses on small humpbacked flies called phorids, classified in the Phoridae family, which by current counts includes about 4,000 species. The real number could be anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 species, Brown writes on his blog. Now, he and other fly experts from around the world may boost the known number. A recent grant will support the researchers’ effort to catalog every single fly species in a 100-by-200-meter patch of forest in Costa Rica, where thousands of new species may await.

One of Brown’s recent adventures led him and his colleagues to the world’s smallest fly — a phorid from Thailand that’s smaller than a flake of pepper. The fly’s only known close living relative decapitates ants, laying eggs that later hatch into larvae that feed on the ants’ heads. This new fly may similarly target some of the world’s smallest ants, Brown says, which goes to show that even tiny creatures can be a force to be reckoned with.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

From the Nature Index

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