Too many relatives ruining your picnic? Be glad the flies don't invite their cousins

Apr 18, 2011
The problem with tracking fly evolution is that every so often, a species of fly will branch into two different species, and then those two will split again, and again and so forth, said Gregory Courtney, professor of entomology. If a series of these branches occurs over a brief period of time, the result will be a rapid radiation of new flies and an evolutionary tree that may look more like a bush. Credit: ISU photo by Bob Elbert

When your family members gather at a picnic in your backyard, there may be 10 to 20 people -- maybe more -- enjoying your barbecue.

When flies visit your party, be glad they don't bring their entire family.

Houseflies have more than 152,000 cousins. And those are just the ones we know about.

An Iowa State University researcher is one of a team of scientists who have recently researched the fly -- one of the most complicated in the animal world.

"It really isn't a tree, it's sort of a bush," said Gregory Courtney, professor of , explaining the complex relationships between fly relatives.

"Because of this, and because the history of flies extends more than 260 million years, it's difficult figuring out the relationships between this branch and that branch," he added.

The problem with tracking fly evolution is that every so often, a species of fly will branch into two different species, and then those two will split again, and again and so forth, he said.

If a series of these branches or dichotomous splits occurs over a brief period of time, the result will be a rapid radiation of new flies and an evolutionary tree that may look more like a bush.

Based on the research of Courtney and his colleagues, at least three episodes of rapid radiation have occurred in the history of flies.

"[The fly family tree] probably involves dichotomous splits," said Courtney. "But we can't always resolve these when there are lots of dichotomous splits going on at the same time."

"One of the nice results of this research was confirmation that a number of episodic radiations may have occurred. That explains some of the difficulty we've had in resolving relationships of different types of flies," he added.

One of Courtney's favorite flies is a group called mountain midges (Deuterophlebia), which the current study suggests is the oldest group of flies, and is positioned near the base of the fly family tree.

He is also an expert on the anatomy, or morphology, of different groups of flies.

That background made him a good choice to help the team decipher the relationships among flies.

"Morphology is just one piece of information that we use to try to figure out relationships," he said. "We looked at a whole suite of morphological characteristics – about 400 characteristics for this analysis."

From its beginning, the fly family tree has been continuously evolving. Courtney says there are now more than 152,000 species of flies that have been described and named, and least that many more haven't yet been discovered and described.

Explore further: Flapping baby birds give clues to origin of flight

More information: Courtney was a co-investigator on the five-year study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Identifying the origin of the fly

Mar 23, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Some may think that the mosquito and the house fly are worlds apart when it comes to common ancestry but new research published this week by an international team of scientists puts them much ...

Researchers map 'fly tree of life'

Mar 14, 2011

Calling it the "new periodic table for flies," researchers at North Carolina State University and collaborators across the globe have mapped the evolutionary history of flies, providing a framework for further comparative ...

History of flies takes flight

Apr 05, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A Simon Fraser University biologist’s fly research fill out a global tree of life map of all living organisms, even though he retired from SFU three years ago.

At home on a crab, with new evolutionary neighbors

Apr 09, 2008

The members of Drosophilidae, a family consisting of about 3000 species, are often referred to as fruit flies although most of the members feed on microbes. As microbes can be found growing on a wide range ...

Flies are given federal protection

May 11, 2006

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has extended federal protection to 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies under the Endangered Species Act.

Humans, flies smell alike, neurobiologists find

Mar 26, 2007

The nose knows – whether it’s on a fruit fly or a human. And while it would seem that how a fruit fly judges odors should differ from how a human smells, new research from Rockefeller University finds that at the neurobiological ...

Recommended for you

Flapping baby birds give clues to origin of flight

11 hours ago

How did the earliest birds take wing? Did they fall from trees and learn to flap their forelimbs to avoid crashing? Or did they run along the ground and pump their "arms" to get aloft?

Wolves susceptible to yawn contagion

Aug 27, 2014

Wolves may be susceptible to yawn contagion, according to a study published August 27, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Teresa Romero from The University of Tokyo, Japan, and colleagues.

User comments : 0