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Biodiversity Blog


Fire Ants and their Phorid Fly Foes: Brackenridge Field Lab and Biodiversity Collections Engage Visitors at UT Explore 2018

UT Explore was held on Saturday March 3rd, drawing a large crowd of families, students, and teachers. The annual event seeks to encourage community interest in research and higher education, and the important impact UT has on Austin and the world at large.

 Rob Plowes, Research Scientist at BFL, speaks with a young student
 Rob Plowes, Research Scientist at BFL, speaks with a young student (Photo courtesy Alejandro Santillana Ferna)

Brackenridge Field Lab (BFL) and the Collections were present at the event, engaging with families and young visitors to make them excited and curious about science, and to show how science and research can address the larger needs of society.

Assisting with this were two displays of insects from the Invasive Species Lab at BFL: invasive fire ants and their parasitoid phorid flies. BFL demonstrated how these tiny parasitoid phorid flies (Pseudacteon obtusus) harass fire ants and oviposit (lay eggs) into the heads of ant workers. The egg will eventually develop into fly larvae, causing the fire ant’s head to fall off.. The interaction of these flies with the fire ants provide an opportunity to show how this case of biological control works, by the flies disrupting the foraging efforts of fire ants.

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 Jason Lawson, Lab Technician at BFL, speaks with visitors. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Santillana Ferna)

Visitors enthusiastically watched the live ovipositing flies attacking the fire ants, while researchers explained what would happen after. Questions from young citizen scientists were often interesting and probing; some were concerned about the flies jumping ship to attack other species like people (they don’t). Other questions were about the social life of ants, and the zombie behavior of ant workers in the late stage of parasitic fly development just before the ant heads fall off. Some also questioned how to become a scientist.

In addition, the Collections brought preserved specimens such as plants, sharks, rattlesnakes, and treefrogs for curious visitors to touch. The Collections also had Texas Longhorn Beetles on display, in addition to a sampling of other natural history specimens.

Overall the UT Explore event provided a dynamic forum for educating the public about research at the Biodiversity Center, inspiring a future generation of scientists.


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 Curious visitors with Collections volunteers at UT Explore.
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