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How do you inventory the forest? Send flesh-eating flies

Posting in Food

With the help of flesh-eating flies, scientists can cheaply and quickly create snapshots of animal diversity in otherwise inaccessible forests. Nature News reports.

The carrion flies and flesh flies that feast on dead mammals are also sampling DNA. Turns out, this DNA stays in their guts long enough to be sequenced – providing species inventories and tracking the status of endangered populations for scientists.

A team led by Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin found a way recover DNA fragments that would be a lot harder to find in mammals (whose guts are more efficient at breaking food down with acids and enzymes). Flies have a less sophisticated digestive system.

  • They baited nets and traps with meat in Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire and Kirindy Reserve in Madagascar.
  • About 40% of the flies they collected carried mammal DNA, which they then sequenced.
  • They identified 16 mammals in Côte d'Ivoire, including Jentink’s duiker (Cephalophus jentinki) – fewer than 3,500 of these endangered antelopes remain.
  • In Madagascar, they identified four mammal species, representing one in eight of all the island’s mammals.

The flies could also help track the status of endangered populations more effectively than active searches, researchers suggest. For example, the Ebola virus killed thousands of gorillas in Republic of Congo and Gabon 10 years ago, but active monitoring found only 44 carcasses. Flies could really be helpful, and especially for monitoring die-offs of the harder-to-find bats and rodents.

The work will be published in Molecular Ecology this week.

[Via Nature News]

Image: flesh fly by Saleem Hameed via Wikimedia

— By on January 6, 2013, 12:46 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure