Preliminary evidence suggests two species of flies were closely related

Flies called Pandemopsis coccinellae are among scientists’ latest focus on extinction mystery

Scientists in the US and China have begun investigating the origin of two species of flies whose massive population collapse and mysterious extinction are sparking panic in scientists and their frustrated captors.

The fate of Pandemopsis coccinellae is another mystery in a strand of extinction concerns that recently have put the Big Cats in the same long-running mourning as the great apes. Pandemopsis only existed for around 10,000 years when it became so small that it was ignored by other scientists until recently.

The species is the descendant of P. coccinellae, which was the native beetle of Vietnam’s straits between the Mekong Delta and the Gulf of Tonkin.

Scientists were baffled when the species vanished. “We haven’t known its fate since it was rediscovered in the early 1960s in Ho Chi Minh City,” said Stephen Hayes, a research curator of insect biology at George Mason University in Virginia.

Prof Bates Kuo from China’s Hunan University said he and others in the US had sought to understand what caused the large population collapse.

Bates Kuo examines a Pandemopsis coccinellae from Florida. Photograph: Sanil Roy Arulpragasam/AFP/Getty Images

“The problem is it’s like an 800-page detective story,” he said. “You need something like CSI [co-production law] to solve the case.”

The latest work has focused on a link between Pandemopsis and another large species of fly called Sanipithecus roxi that was known to exist until 1918.

“A hundred years ago, some old fly fossils were unearthed in Cuba, suggesting it once lived in the lowlands of the US,” said Kuo. He started analysing skeletal remains of the Mexican flying fox, which are identical to bones from the Mexican fly, the Namiban fly and P. coccinellae. Kuo developed an algorithm that could identify the DNA from the fossil from the DNA from the flies.

“The DNA in the Namibian fly was similar to DNA in the fossil, while that of the fly was different,” said Kuo. That could be a reason why the fly survived and the extinct fly was barely fit to fly.

“Of course, that was back then,” said Kuo. “DNA tests will tell us more about the origins of each of these species but I would like to stress that evidence so far indicates that these two species are related.”

The research is published in the journal European Journal of Genomics.

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