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So there has been a lot of talk in the media about the Terrible Hairy Fly and I thought that I would fill you in with some more details, including photographs of the material at the museum and tell you some more interesting facts about this amazing creature who, I have to agree does look a bit odd even to me!


We are talking about Mormotomyia hirsuta, which is the only species represented in this genus and this family. And to make matters more interesting we are not even really sure where they fit in with the rest of the Diptera! They have been tentatively placed near the Heleomyzidae (see below)



From the



But other authors disagree and have placed it in Hippoboscoidea (see but all agree that it is odd, an outlier that needs to be sorted.



This was problematic though originally as the material that we had was collected either in 1933 or 1948. During that period the techniques available to describe species were limited to morphological descriptions, which generally suit the purpose wonderfully. However this species is odd, very odd and traditional methods for placing it into an evolutionary tree were not coping. For the majority if museum specimens it has been very had to extract any genetic material from specimens this old; only recently have we been haven any successes. Also there had been numerous expeditions to find fresh material of this elusive fly after the first two collecting events but all were unsuccessful. So the specimens have just sat there, looking weird in the drawer. Until recently that is, very recently!



It is so not often that I get to do this, but to quote the Daily Mail ‘It went missing for 62 years, but now Africa's 'terrible hairy fly' has been discovered in remote caves in Kenya. The insect, which does not have fully-formed wings and so is unable to fly, is one of the rarest creatures in the world. 

Read more:



And it may have been due to it being Unable to fly and partial to breeding in bat faeces’ with the fly being ‘thought to live only in the dank, bat-filled cleft of the isolated rock in Kenya's Ukazi Hills’ ( that it remained undisturbed for so long.




But now two researchers, Dr Robert Copeland and Dr Ashley Kirk-Spriggs on an internally funded trip, have rediscovered them! And everyone in the fly world is very excited about it (they are…Honest!)



So let’s talk about them and then how exciting this find is!! The flies are sexually dimorphic things;  


hairy fly female.bmp


hairy fly male.bmp

The really hairy ones are the males and they are also much larger generally with much longer legs. These are specimens from our collection, part of the original series!!


But they both have only tiny hairy wings that will not be of much use in powered flight (see photo below from one of the new specimens found).


Terrible hairy fly.jpg

Copyright by original authors.



It is hypothesised that they cling on to bats to enable migration but as they have not been found anywhere else apart from the one cave, this may not be the case!! Now, due to this find there is a lot of material that can be sequenced i.e. they can determine where on earth these flies fit in with the rest of the flies and to further aid this they were able to collect puparia and larval material for scanning electron microscopy studies. This enables the researchers to give a complete morphological, molecular and life history account of this species – which is pretty much the best that you can do. J It is so exciting when a find like this occurs to answer such a large piece of the evolutionary puzzle (how everything is organised!)



And secondly, knowing that this species is alive and not extinct is fantastic! Although at the moment the species appears to be restricted to one locality, and maybe does not exist anywhere else, the researchers now studying the life history of this species hope to find similar sites elsewhere in Kenya where other populations may survive!



A very good story indeed!







Well it’s been a long time since I have posted a piece on the blog, sorry! So here are some of the things that have been preoccupying my time! Again I have been away on fieldwork (some more successful than others!!), we have had an all change in the department and I have been busy with visitors, projects and general day to day life!!


So firstly we have a new keeper (Dr Andy Polaszek, a hymenopterist!) and soon to take over as head of collections once Howard Mendel retires is Theresa Howard (My line manager!). It is sad in one way as it is the end of an era. Howard secured my first contract with the NHM and encouraged me with my work but I feel that the department is in good hands with Theresa to take us on through difficult times. We have a lot of work to do in a limited amount of time – but I guess that is a common problem.


As to more fun stuff ! I wrote most of this blog whilst sitting in a hotel in Sao   Paulo. We were due to go on fieldwork in Paraguay but that has been postponed and so I am utilising my time well here. It is the first time that I have seen the collection here which is the largest in Brazil. Carlos Lamas (a dipterist who specialises in beeflies) overseas the collection and I had great fun noising around in it. Although the collection is open (not in cabinets) they do not suffer from pests or changes in temperature or humidity and the collection is in very good condition. They do have a lot of work to do though as these pictures show!!!



Some unidentified material! (Figure 1)

Diptera material - MZUSP (1) small.jpg


We also spent our time sorting out future collaborations and transfer agreements. Both sides are very keen to have a closer relationship. Dalton de Souza Amorim is another ‘fly man’ that I work with in Brazil. We are working on some ‘lost’ types which have been rediscovered in our collection in London. At the NHM we have an impressive new imaging lab in the Darwin centre and I am now beginning to play around with the system. We have a clever piece of software (not unique to the NHM) which allows us to create a picture which is composed of many images overlying each other so creating a greater depth of field. We can do this with specimens that are just 2mm and so enable us to look at the wings and the hairs on the genitalia!! I have been creating images of fungus gnat genitalia (it always gets back to that in the end) as well as helping the IPM (integrated pest management) group take photos of unidentified beetles found in the museum.


Dalton de Souza Amorim in the collection (Figure 2)

MZUSP dalton small.jpg


I have written the second half of this blog again whilst sitting in a hostel in Sao Paulo but this time on my return from Paraguay and all that is good there. As most people are aware we have had to postpone the major collecting trip into the dry Chaco but hopefully that will still happen. However as several of us were already in the region, on our way, we headed to Asuncion to sort out some things. The people we met were incredibly helpful – most of them are hopefully coming on the trip with us and they will be amazing! A lot of them have spent time sampling around Paraguay and have a very good local knowledge. We spent some time in the Museum  of Natural History, which is the most compact little museum but crammed full of amazing specimens. But they stretch up to the ceiling with the gaps between the collections becoming smaller and smaller!



John Kochalka working his way through the collection! (Figure 3)

John in the collection.jpg


It is warren of cabinets that all need looking in! I spent some time photographing all of the drawers of the Diptera collection and specific specimens inside.


An unidentified Tachinid (Figure 4)

figure 4.jpg


A drawer of unsorted material – the little flies in the bottom right corner with the orange labels are the ones caught in the Dry Chaco. (Figure 5)


Hopefully I will be able to pass these on to people to identify the specimens. Luckily they have started colour coding the material from the different biomes in the country. All the specimens that have not been identified and that are from the Dry Chaco have been photographed for identification! We have also agreed to sort out permits to exchange material across the museums to speed up the identification process! There are lots of people in Brazil for example working on groups that are unidentified in the museum! I also spent my time looking at the ‘crazy’ flies that the one of the invertebrate curators John Kochalka kept fishing out for me! There was a crazy thunder storm during the day and several leaks sprung from the ceiling luckily not in the collection though!


We were taken to a camp one night out of the city at a friend’s father’s Estacion! Oh and it was lovely. We went for a walk in the surrounding area – that was great – a mix of botanists and entomologists so the pace was very slow!! We climbed the only hill in the area (Paraguay is very flat) and enjoyed the great views from the top.



This is Juana De Egea, a very good Paraguayan Botanist (Figure 6)

Juana De Egea.jpg



A robber fly just enjoying the sunshine! (Figure 7)



We set up a sheet at night for seeing what moths etc were in the area (there was no collecting just observing!). It was completely invaded by termites to start with which encouraged some of the other local inhabitants to visit us!



Please note the termite that didn’t make it into the mouth! (Figure 8)

Figure 8.jpg


But there were many different types of moths, beetles, bugs but sadly no flies!



One of the many species of Moth. (Figure 9)

Figure 9.jpg


So all in all a very positive outcome for the time we were there.


And on my return journey - I again spent some time in the Museum of Sao Paulo and we were able to look at all of the photo's that I took whilst in the Museum of Paraguay and we established that there were new species of Diptera just sitting in the collection as well as new records to the country! We are working on now describing the material!!

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

View Erica McAlister's profile