Stalk-eyed flies

Stalk-eyed fly (Diasemopsis  fasciata) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Stalk-eyed fly (Diasemopsis fasciata) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

I really don’t like when organisms that deviate from our narrow, anthropocentric perception of the natural world are described as “bizarre” but, let’s face it, flies of the family Diopsidae sure look that way. They are hypercephalic, which means that their head is extremely expanded in a way that places both their eyes and the antennae at the tips of very long, often almost horizontal stalks. This family of flies is not the only one that has eyes placed on long stalks, but in Diopsidae this feature is nearly universal. Diopsidae occur mostly in Africa and SE Asia, although two species are found also in North America and one in Europe. (One species is apparently quite common in Massachusetts, and I will definitely try to find it next summer.)

With eyes on such long stalks, keeping them clean is not an easy task. Not surprisingly, these flies spend a lot of time on personal hygiene. [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

With eyes on such long stalks, keeping them clean is not an easy task. Not surprisingly, diopsid flies spend a lot of time on personal hygiene. [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Although flies with hypercephalic features are considered a classic case of sexual selection driving the development of exaggerated morphological characters, Diopsidae don’t quite fit this explanation as both males and females have similar, greatly modified heads. In some species, however, sexual dimorphism exists, and males have longer eye-stalks than females. In such species females preferentially mate with males having the longest stalks, and these matings result in increased fitness of the females. Males engage in long, ritualized contests, where they clash with their heads, and the winner is almost always the individual with more widely separated eyes. This is because of a phenomenon known as hyperallometry – the larger the armament, the larger the body size, and thus the strength of the individual. Such contests serve as a simple way to assess the overall size of the rival, and smaller individuals will quickly give up the duel, sensing the strength of the larger rival.

It is not surprising that carrying your eyeballs at the ends of a long broomstick does not make your life any easier, and it has been shown that males who have particularly long stalks must also develop larger wings to compensate for the drag caused by their eyes. This, in turn, supports the idea of the “Handicap model” of sexual selection in these flies – because the long eye stalks make the male’s life more difficult, surely he must be a carrier of some excellent genetic material to be able to overcome the handicap of the gargantuan ornaments.

—————–

Update (22 Jan. 13): Thanks to Hans Feijen for identifying the fly species, which turned out to be Diasemopsis fasciata, and not Diopsis.

Stalk-eyed flies usually spend the night in large roosts close to small bodies of water (Guinea) [Nikon D1x, Sigma 180mm, flash Nikon SB-28DX]

Stalk-eyed flies usually spend the night in large roosts close to small bodies of water (Guinea) [Nikon D1x, Sigma 180mm, flash Nikon SB-28DX]

9 thoughts on “Stalk-eyed flies

  1. I really appreciate how clearly you explain that what may be seen as a handicap (albeit a sexy one) also leads to improved or demonstrated strength that’s required to work with it. I’m not sure I remember THAT part of the discussion re: sexual selection in college, lo these many years ago.

    That last shot looks like a satellite photo of a lake surrounded by city streets (leaf veins) that’s been invaded by gigantic creatures. =)

    As always, SO enjoy your fascinating posts & views.

  2. Pingback: Links 1/25/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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