CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Neal Evenhuis, above, looks at a vial of flies. He is chairman of natural science at Bishop Museum. He is one of four scientists who coordinated an index of more than 156,000 fly species on Earth.
Flies evolve extensively in isles
Some flies might be pesky, some deadly, but others do a lot of good for mankind.
There wouldn't be any without flies, notes Bishop Museum's Neal Evenhuis. "Tiny midges pollinate the cacao flowers."
Evenhuis, the museum's chairman of natural sciences, is one of four coordinators of an index of more than 156,000 fly species.
It is the first time in more than 200 years that there has been an index to all known species of flies inhabiting the planet, he said in an interview.
The index is the latest version of a Biosystematic Database of World Diptera. (Diptera is an order of true flies -- those with a single pair of wings.) The scientists entered 80,000 records from scientific literature published since 1758 to bring the index up to date, Evenhuis said.
One of the largest online indexes for any group of organisms, it shows that flies comprise roughly 10 percent of known animal species on Earth, he said. They will be a big piece of the Encyclopedia of Life, a global collaborative project, Evenhuis said.
He is working on a unique group of long-legged flies that have speciated or evolved into 170 species in Hawaii. There are only 100 other species in the world, he said.
He said Hawaii and French Polynesia are hot spots for the genus, Campsicnemus. There were only three species known in French Polynesia before the research, he said. Now there are 55 and he is describing yet another, he added.
The scientists are hoping the index will help people to understand and appreciate "what is out there in natural history," Evenhuis said. "There is a lot of neat stuff. The variety we have here in Hawaii is incredible."
Long-legged flies are just one example of Hawaii's natural laboratory of evolution. They are typically found at higher elevations and are used as indicators of pristine water quality, he said.
"They're not the picnic nuisance house flies," Evenhuis said. They are predators whose "job in the environment is to keep a number of other things down ... so they don't get out of hand."
The legs of the male sometimes have bizarre modifications that are used to attract females and make it easy to identify them in the rain forests, he said, noting new ones are found "almost as fast as our staff can go out and collect them." He also has a home in the Volcano ohia rain forest and collects flies on tiny traps in his back yard, he said.
COURTESY NEAL EVENHUIS
Evenhuis studies flies, including a long-legged fly found in higher elevations. Some males have bizarre modifications on their legs, used to attract females. This particular genus, Campsicnemus, has developed into other species at an amazing rate in Hawaii and French Polynesia.
It is not known why the Hawaii flies have "gone crazy" and speciated so much, Evenhuis said. He and Patrick O'Grady at the University of California, Berkeley, have applied for a grant to use molecular analysis that could explain why the Hawaiian Drosophilas and Campsicnemus flies have evolved so extensively.
The inventory of flies also is continuing with help from new technologies and funding initiatives globally, he said. "With an estimated million or more species left to discover and describe, we anticipate the job will take another 100 years with appropriate funding."
The project was begun in 1984 by F. Christian Thompson with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Washington, D.C. Others involved besides Evenhuis were Thomas Pape, Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and Adrian C. Pont, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, United Kingdom.
They coordinated a team of 50 experts worldwide and announced the new information at the recent International Congress of Entomology in Durban, South Africa.
"Most people think of houseflies when you say 'flies,' but flies also include gnats, midges, no-see-ums, punkies, tsetse, bots and mosquitoes," Thompson said. "They are probably the most important animals in our knowledge of human diseases, and through their bites cause more deaths each year than all other forms of death combined through such ailments such as malaria, dengue, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness and yellow fever."
Flies also perform critical functions: They pollinate many wildflowers, trees and bushes and help in pollinating some crops. Fly larvae also are important in recycling organic material in lakes and streams and speeding up decomposition of dead leaves in forests, the scientists said.
Human health gets a hand from certain maggots that are used medically to clean out bedsores and other slow-healing wounds, and the Drosophila melanogaster fly has contributed significantly to the genetics of diseases from type 2 diabetes to age-related memory impairment.