I’ve been called pond scum before, but never before has it been quite so accurate.
Researchers have discovered a new species of fly in the wet tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and Panama. They named the fly Dixella suzukii – after me. That’s right, no great whale or fierce jungle cat for this fella. I’ve been immortalized as a fly. A pond-scum sucking fly at that.
For many people, having such a fly named after them may not be such a big deal. In fact, some might actually find it a bit insulting. But for me, it is a great honour. Flies and I go way back. As a boy, I was an avid insect collector. And during the decades I spent as a working geneticist, fruit flies were my specialty. I spent countless hours in the lab experimenting with these remarkable little creatures. They are convenient to work with because they are so small and have such short life cycles. And genetically, fruit flies are surprisingly similar to human beings. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I owe the bulk of my academic career to these insects.
But Dixella suzukii is no fruit fly. Like the fruit fly, it is a true fly of the order Diptera (along with 120,000 or so other species), but the fly that bears my name prefers to feed off of the scum that forms on the surface of swamps and slow-moving streams rather than fruit. In fact, as larvae and as adults, these flies are never far from a body of water.
Again, the similarity is uncanny. I too, prefer to be close to the water. When I was a larvae – I mean a child – you couldn’t get me out of the swamp or the Thames River near my childhood home in London, Ontario. True, I didn’t eat pond scum, but that swamp and river were certainly a source of nutrition from all the fish I caught there. It was those small patches of nature that cemented my love for the wild and for biology that ultimately propelled me down my career path as a geneticist.
So having a swamp-loving fly named after me couldn’t be more apt. I owe this great honour to Sr. Luis Guillermo Chaverri of the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica, and Dr. Art Borkent of the Royal British Columbia Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. These two researchers found the fly, named it and published their findings in the journal Zootaxa.
In the region of Central America where they found my Dixella, more than a dozen other new fly species were also found – yet only two species had been previously recorded in the area. This goes to show just how much we have to learn about the diversity of life on our planet – especially insects. Only about half of the world’s fly species have been documented so far. There are likely many more that we don’t even know about.
In fact, Dixella suzukii’s home is actually one of most species-rich places on the planet. It’s part of what researchers call the Mesoamerica Hotspot. “Hotspots” of biodiversity are areas where an inordinate number of species live. Many of them are in tropical regions and face serious threats such as deforestation and global warming. The Mesoamerican Hotspot includes Costa Rica’s vaunted cloud forest, which was once home to the golden toad – a species that went extinct in 1989. It is thought to be one of the first extinctions caused by global warming.
Dixella suzukii may just be a fly, but it is part of the great diversity of life on Earth. Each creature has a role to play in that diversity – roles that together make an ecosystem healthier and more resilient to change. Maybe you can lose a species and the ecosystem can continue to function pretty much normally. Maybe you can lose two species. But at some point, the resiliency breaks down and it can damage the entire system.
Sure, maybe having a bear or a shark or a raptor named after me would have been more dramatic. But insects are the workhorses of the natural world and are really just as important. So you can keep your elephants, your lions, apes and other charismatic megafauna. I’ll take my fly any day.