12. Dryomyzidae – facial recognition

1st April 2019

Anyone who has used an identification key will have come across the feeling at the end of the process of having been encouraged not to see the woods for twiglets on trees. It’s like being told to look out for someone with an elongated brownish mole on the inside ventral surface of their second-biggest toe on the left foot – and discovering that the person in question is six-foot three, wearing a kilt and carrying a live mole! When you look at a fly under a microscope as an individual rather than as a set of taxonomically informative characters, it’s surprising just how different they are to each other in general shape and colour, in the patterns and siltings of the river deltas of their wing venation, in the precision with which their bristles are placed, angled and sized. But most of all, in their faces.

How about this for a face to remember in this otherwise undistinguished visitor to a bottle-trap baited with pineapple? See how the eye crowds the front of the head beneath a just-out-of-bed spikey haircut. The antenna seems slightly too full-bodied with its delicate, drooping arista. Most of all, take in the sharp angle at which the face is undercut before it surges out again with a haughty upper lip. From this angle it’s a fly with attitude, possibly just a little bit grumpy.

But from the front it’s a different matter – a noble, broad golden forehead flecked with purple-brown and minute black hairs, the eyes no longer squeezed on but perfectly fitted to the overall shape, a symphony of curves. Those over-sized antennae turn out to be hollowed out on their inside faces, and even the hairstyle looks more straight-laced head on. It’s a friendly, enquiring face that looks back at you asking what you are about with your katepisternal bristles and setulose wing veins just to pin me down as a member of the family Dryomyzidae (four British species, of which I am Dryopes flaveola)?

So today I announce, a long-term project, the satisfyingly alliterative “Phrenology of Flies Faces”, to replace the mind-numbing, evolutionary-based study of taxonomic characters. Instead we will have a life-enhancing and open-ended study of the inner character of flies as deduced from an empathetic reading of their faces. Subsequent volumes will include “Beguiling Beetle’s Backs” and “Mothing for Mothers” – the only problem being that I can only devote myself to this work once a year ….

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