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Research & Collections News

At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM), the curatorial staff members are widely recognized authorities in their fields. They win major grants. They serve as faculty and research associates at universities, museums, and other institutions. They publish regularly in journals and magazines. They are engaged in field and onsite research. They even play roles in crime fighting and policy-making. And of course, they preserve and strengthen the Museum’s collections — the platform upon which exhibitions and public programs are built. 

To learn about recent accomplishments by Research and Collections staff, see the Research and Collections Newsletters, published by Jody Martin and Dean Pentcheff.


NHM Science News

By Lisa Blai



Warring Ants Attract Parasitic Fly

Near Santiago, Chile, a battleground is strewn with wounded warriors—legs severed, bodies sliced down the middle, and antennae lopped off. The soldiers in this battle are ants. A Chilean entomologist, Bernardo Segura, witnessed this unusual sight and noticed something strange: tiny flies hovered over the ants (a species of the carpenter ant). He sent his photographs of the scene to Curator of Entomology Dr. Brian Brown from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a world expert on parasitic phorid flies attacking ants. The photographs depicted a gory scene, with the flies in close attendance. One fly landed on an ant’s head, laying eggs inside the host; the besieged ant tried uselessly, with amputated legs, to brush away the parasite. Meanwhile, on a different ant, a phorid attached its mouth to a wound left behind from an amputated antenna, feeding on the hemolymph (a fluid analogous to the blood and vital fluids in birds and mammals) that runs through in the circulatory system of ants.

It is thought that the injured ants release “alarm” hormones that serve as a trigger to recruit other ants to defend the colony. They also serve to lure the parasitic phorid flies, who exploit the situation by attacking the helpless victims. Although Brown discovered years ago that he could attract phorid flies to experimentally injured ants, actual confirmation that this occurs in nature is rare. "This observation furthers the evidence that phorid flies have exploited the chemical signaling system of ants to their advantage, and that inter-colony battles are a portal for phorid attacks on ants," said Brown. Which probably means more of this gruesome scene is in store. The latest NHM buzz on the parasitic phorid fly can be found here.

Photo credit: Phorid fly and ant by Bernardo Segura.
From Segura, B. and Brown, B. 2014. Inter-colony aggression of Camponotus morosus attractive to phorid flies. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 87(1): 84-88.