Erica McAlister is Senior Curator of Diptera and Siphonaptera at The Natural History Museum, London, where she has worked here for 15 years concentrating on lower Brachycera, Culicidae and Mycetophilidae. Recently she published a popular science book ‘The Secret Life of Flies’ which won the 2019 Zoological Society of London’s Clarivate Analytics Award for Communicating Zoology. She is the President of the Amateur Entomological Society and has also been awarded an Honorary Fellowship to the Royal Society of Entomology.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I have just been to a talk on micro-Dolichopodidae – tiny little long legged flies. There are about 120 of these species and most are less than 1mm in length! Most people don’t find these species as they are often unobserved in the sampling net, the standard collecting method for Dipterists. I love the fact that there is so much to learn about on this tiny scale! One genus, Enlinia, have very odd shaped wings as well that are very hairy – Why they have wobbly wings we don’t know!
What attracted you to studying creatures that some people would find disgusting?
What a weirdly phrased question! OK I don’t think that any creature can be truly disgusting – I find it annoying that humans use such labels. I think it’s best to go with fascinating. What is not to be fascinated by the ability of some of these fabulous beasts to digest their food externally? These were not the flies that hooked me though. It was the parasitoids – the animals that require another animal to live in such as the bot flies. The idea of being able to develop in another animal is an extreme environment for any immature animal and includes salubrious situations such as the stomach of a rhinoceros or the nostril of a camel.
I remember the first time I looked at a fly under a microscope and was blown away with what I was seeing. Do you still get that thrill of discovery or has the feeling dampened over the years?
All. The. Time. I am always getting goose bumps. There is such morphological variability in flies that there is always something new to marvel at! I am lucky to not only see these fascinating creatures but meet the experts working on them – their passion is infectious.
What are the practicalities of curating the vast collections at the Natural History Museum, UK?
Many. It is one of the biggest in the world and so you need time to get the projects done, you need resources such as pins, unit trays and drawers. You need to database the specimens and upgrade the nomenclature. You have to be aware of taxonomic changes of the groups that you are recurating. You need to be aware of the researchers working on the group to assist with unidentified material. And these specimens are some of the most globally important as the collection is comprised of many types – the name bearing specimen for a species. So you have to be exceptionally careful. Everyday there are requests to visit and study the collection, or emails requesting for material to be sent to them, ranging from a keen amateur to a senior researcher to a group of enthusiastic Masters students.
Do you have a favourite insect? Why?
Kind off. Obviously it’s a fly but it is hard to narrow it down. So I have a real soft spot for Laphria flava – the bumblebee robber fly. An incredibly hirsute creature, where both sexes sport a moustache. These are top predators and are highly venomous (with this family having new venoms known to science).
But there is also Bombylius major – the dark edged bee fly. The mother hurls her eggs round the garden and the subsequent parasitoid larvae go through two distinct phases before feasting on immature bees. The adults are fluffy flying narwhales who are important pollinators.
And then there are the acrocerids, whose larvae eat the insides of spiders…
What would you say is the strangest insect? Looks or behaviour.
OK there are the flies that grow their eyes at the end of stalks which are quite fantastic, with some amazing examples including Achias rothschildi but a personal favourite includes the ones that grow processes out of their cheeks such as Phytalmia alcicornis. As for behaviour where does one start? Flies that decapitate ants are quite cool…
What do you wish the general public would know about flies? What are the common misconceptions?
That there are so many misconceptions it’s hard to know where to start. Just alone in the UK there are more than 7000 species – that is more than mammals on the planet – and they are way more ecologically diverse than those larger creatures. And they do so many more things. They are the pollinators of chocolate, they scuba dive the salt lakes of California, and were the first animals in space – an eclectic range of talents! And Flies aren’t dirty. They are always cleaning themselves as they have to ensure that they are in top shape to deal with what life throws at them.
My grandma was convinced that bloodsucking flies preferred her blood over others as she always seemed to get bitten. Is there some truth in this? Are some humans more susceptible to being bitten than others?
Yes, there is. But it is not just one thing. The females are greatly affected by the chemicals that you release and this is determined a lot by your genetics (always blame you parents). But your blood group, body temperature, your breath, beer consumption, clothing, and if you are pregnant, are all important factors as well.
Having helped with various fieldwork projects, your work isn’t just limited to museums. Can you tell me more? How does your research help make the world a better place?
The Natural History Museum is not just static collections but very active research institute and as such are maintaining and enhancing all the time. So myself and other colleagues are often on fieldwork to collect specimens that can answer different biological questions, the most imperative of which is ‘what is out there?’ – a key question when it comes to global biodiversity and conservation. My colleague and I are in the process of describing six new species of house fly that I have collected in Dominica at the moment, these could be important as pollinators or pests – we have yet to ascertain but we need to first say that they were different from the other species whose biology we know. We can also see how species change with time and how their populations move, again important for understanding vectors and climate change.
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