Wikimedia, Muhammad Mahdi KarimThe flies that feast on rotting flesh collect a genetic inventory of the animals in their forest homes in their stomachs, according to a study published today (January 7) in Molecular Ecology. Though the researchers originally intended to study whether the flies could transfer the causative agent of anthrax, they soon discovered fly guts contained discernable fragments of mammalian DNA, and realized the flies might serve as a useful way to track the species of inaccessible forests.
“Detecting mammal DNA from flies could also be an extremely cool tool for assessing biodiversity,” team leader Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer, an evolutionary biologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, told Nature.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they trapped flies on bait meat in Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) and the Kirindy Reserve in Madagascar. From the 40 percent of the flies that carried mammalian DNA fragments—some several hundred base pairs long—the team of researchers was able to identify 20 mammals—16 from the Ivory Coast that included 9 primates and an endangered antelope, and four from Madagascar that included two lemur species.
In addition to assessing biodiversity, researchers hope that fly tracking could help monitor endangered species or disease outbreaks in animal populations, such as the Ebola outbreak that killed thousands of gorillas in the Republic of Congo and Gabon a decade ago.