Animals come in many shapes and sizes, none more so than flies. There are flies that mimic other species, flies with incredible iridescent bodies, and even some species that cannot fly at all. I had the pleasure of being introduced to quite a few of these little creatures at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s online event: ‘Drawn to Nature: Flies’. This was part of a series of online events delivered by the museum, in which guests are invited to draw some of the specimens whilst listening to an expert’s presentation on what makes them special.
Leading us through the fascinating world of flies was Zoe Simmons, Head of Life Collections at the museum, who is specifically responsible for the museum’s fly collection. Zoe started us off by asking how we might define what a fly is, or at least what it isn’t. Flies, she begins, belong to the phylum euarthropoda, an extremely diverse grouping of organisms, which includes insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. Due to their diversity, arthropods can be hard to classify; however, as Zoe points out, you could do worse than looking for things that are small-ish, crunchy-ish, and quick-ish. These are all qualified terms, because as we will find out, in the case of flies and other arthropods, rules are often made to be broken.
Flies themselves have a fairly distinct morphology. They have three segments: the head, the abdomen and the thorax. Aside from this common geography, their bodies can be squat and rotund, like the common bluebottle, or long and lean, like a mosquito. Another common feature of flies is their two wings, for which they are named diptera (literally two-winged). Here you also see a lot of variety, with transparent, veinated wings on such species as the fruit fly, or beautiful patterned wings, such as on the liberally-named notch-horned cleg.
When you get up close to these little marvels, you can see a great number of features that might not have been immediately apparent. As Zoe took us through the collection we saw that most flies have small antenna, and their legs are generally structured in the same way, with two long segments and five smaller ones, called tarsi. Some flies are covered with hair, with some of the hairiest being bee-flies, such as Bombylius major. These bumble-bee mimics definitely skew toward the cuter end of the spectrum, but other fuzz-balls can be quite terrifying to look at. One such creepy customer is the aptly named ‘terribly hairy fly’, which has such tiny wings that it can’t get off the ground, and consequently resembles a kind of spider. Moving along in the presentation we encounter some even more bizarre denizens of the world of diptera, with the stalk-eyed fly and antler fly being amongst the strangest. These winged weirdos have highly specialised features on their heads; the stalk-eyed fly looks like a cross between a hammer-head shark and a patron of the Mos-Eisley cantina, whilst the antler fly wouldn’t look out of place mounted on the wall of a tiny hunting lodge!
Taking the time to draw these strange creatures allows one to see the beauty in the oddness. Zoe ends her talk with a nod to the contribution flies make to the food chain, as prey to birds and small rodents, and as major pollinators. It just goes to show that, no matter how small, and no matter how odd, it pays to be thankful for the little things.
The natural history museum will continue to put on events both in and out of lockdown, providing interesting activities and learning opportunities for all. Find out more at: https://oumnh.ox.ac.uk/events#/
The full talk is available as a recording on the OUMNH YouTube channel here.