Bloemfontein scientist discovers ‘fly that can’t fly’


Senior Museum Scientist in the Department of Terrestrial Invertebrates at the National Museum in Bloemfontein, Burgert Muller, recently made an astonishing discovery in Lesotho. On an expedition to South Africa’s landlocked neighbour, the taxonomist discovered that the female Snipe Fly shows signs of wing reduction.

“Atherimorpha latipennis belongs to a family of flies called the Rhagionidae, commonly called Snipe Flies,” explained Muller. “What makes Atherimorpha latipennis so special, is that its newly described female is the first record of brachyptery (reduction in wings) for the family in the world.”

Burgert Muller (left) alongside Dr John Midgley during an excursion to Lesotho. PHOTO: Supplied

Muller also said taxonomy forms part of what is known as fundamental science, and says that you cannot understand or conserve something if you don’t even know what it is. “The genus Atherimorpha is also interesting, as it is what is called a Gondwanan relic,” said Muller, “implying that these flies are remnants of a time when the continents were all part of the supercontinent Gondwana before it separated over a hundred million years ago.”

Muller took part in the expedition to Lesotho due to the fly biodiversity in the country being undersampled and understudied. “The last major fly catching expeditions in Lesotho were between the 1950s and 1970s,” explained Muller, “and back then it was truly still only for the adventurous. This in itself made Lesotho very appealing to us,” he said.

Three expeditions were undertaken by Muller and Dr John Midgley between 2021 and 2023, providing them with a treasure trove of new information.

“For example, a hoverfly, Graptomyza summa, was once thought to be rare, and last collected in the 1970s,” said Muller. “We found it in relative abundance in Lesotho.” The discovery of new species and species variation is of great importance to the scientific world.

The Atherimorpha latipennis male, with significantly larger wings than its female counterpart. PHOTO: Supplied

“It generates fundamental knowledge,” explained Muller, “and while discovering new species is not always as exciting as in the case of our tiny winged fly, it allows us to better understand our natural heritage.”

“This information can inform decisions at various levels, from conservation to development. I for one, would very much like to know what we have, and how it slots into the bigger environmental picture, and we can only start to do that if we know its name and what makes it unique.” Muller explained that there are only a handful of employed Diptera (fly) taxonomists in South Africa, and some fly groups have thousands of species.

He said that at present there are over 120 000 species of flies known worldwide, of which around 20 000 occur in South Africa, but he believes that there is an estimated 1 000 000 species of flies left to discover and describe in the world.

At present Muller and Dr Midgley are still working through the material they collected in Lesotho before they send it to specialists worldwide for study. “The aim being the eventual publication of a collection of papers on the Diptera of Lesotho in the KwaZulu-Natal Museum Journal, African Invertebrates,” said Muller.

Warren Hawkins