How Weird Flies Dive Underwater And Survive A Deadly Lake

Posted: Nov 23 2017, 11:01pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 23 2017, 11:13pm CST, in Latest Science News


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How Weird Flies Dive Underwater and Survive a Deadly Lake
An alkali fly creates a protective bubble in order to dive in toxic and salty Mono Lake. Credit: Floris van Breugel / Caltech

Scientists finally solve the msytery of scuba-diving fly

Mono Lake in California is three times saltier than the ocean. Not only does the lake is super salty, it contains toxic chemicals like sodium carbonate and borax. That makes it impossible for any fish or vertebrates to thrive at the inhospitable lake. Yet the tiny alkali fly can easily dive into the Mono Lake to feed and lay eggs. And each time these flies emerge to the surface, they appear completely dry.

More than a century ago, the unique ability of alkali fly, also known as Ephydra hians, has attracted attention from American writer Mark Twain. In his 1872 book Roughing It, Twain wrote: “You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way."

Now, researchers have figured out how the flies of Mono Lake survive the lake’s highly alkaline water. To learn about the physical mechanism of alkali flies unique behavior, researchers used a combination of high-speed video and micro-force measurements and observed hundreds of flies from the Mono Lake. They found that the diving flies are protected by an air bubble that forms around their body upon entering the lake. The bubble is a result of an extreme water-repelling phenomenon called superhydrophobicity. Moreover, the flies have more dense hair than other species. Their bodies are also covered by waxy substance that is effective at withstanding carbonate-rich water. Remarkably, the bubble does not encase the flies’ eyes and allows them to see clearly underwater.

“Mono Lake has a very delicate and unique ecosystem. Conservationists have fought hard to prevent its loss. We were interested in the Mono Lake flies not only because their behavior is so unusual, but because they are a crucial species for the lake's ecosystem and food web.” Co-study researchers and former Caltech postdoctoral scholar Floris van Breugel said in a statement.

When researchers compared the performance of Mono Lake flies to a variety of different flies, including some close relatives, they found that chemical makeup of Mono Lake water is particularly good at breaking through an average insect's hairy defenses. When a regular fly gets too close to the lake water, it gets wet to a degree that would become impossible for it to escape from the lake.

“It's not that Mono Lake flies have evolved a new and unique way of remaining hydrophobic—it's that they've amplified the normal tools that most insects use," said Caltech biologist Michael Dickinson. "It's just a killer gig. There's nothing underwater to eat you and you have all the food you want. You've just got to dive in perhaps the most difficult water in which to stay dry on the planet. They figured it out, and so get to enjoy an extremely unique life history. It's amazing how the evolution of such small-scale physical and chemical changes can allow an animal to occupy an entirely new ecological niche."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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