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The Parasite That Drives Flies to Drink

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Leptopilina boulardi (Hymenoptera: Figitidae) female

A couple weeks ago the science media was positively tipsy with news that common fruit flies fight parasites by… wait for it… ingesting enough ethanol to kill their inner tormentors. Fruit flies boast a higher tolerance for ethanol than most other insects, including the wasps whose larvae grow by consuming young fruit flies from the inside. Flies can drink their attackers under the table, so to speak.

This sort of study is the science commentariat’s perfect story: solid research on an animal familiar to most readers, easily anthropomorphized, and headlineable with any number of drinking puns. Most coverage centered on the flies, but I was curious about the parasites, figitid wasps of the species Leptopilina boulardi. I was especially interested after discovering how rarely the parasites had been photographed. So I contacted one of the study’s author, Todd Schlenke, who kindly hooked me up with some of his charismatic study subjects. Below are a few photos I took of Todd’s wasps this weekend.

A female wasp- less than two millimeters long- probes a rotting banana with her ovipositor.

Mmmm.... rotting bananas!

Male Leptopilina have long antennae for sniffing out mates. This one spreads his wings a millisecond before launching himself into the air.

Fruit flies are attacked by several wasps, not just the lovely Leptopilina. Here’s a diapriid, Trichopria drosophilae, that attacks fly pupae rather than larvae:

Trichopria drosophilae. Those are some serious antennae!

And a braconid, Asobara citri:

Asobara citri

I hope you enjoy seeing these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them!

source: Milan NF, Kacsoh BZ, Schlenke TA. Alcohol Consumption as Self-Medication against Blood-Borne Parasites in the Fruit FlyCurrent Biology Feb 16, 2012.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. WarrenL 5:15 pm 03/5/2012

    Great post!
    What was the answer – how often had they been photographed?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild 6:11 pm 03/5/2012

    A French photographer, Sonia Dourlot, has some nice shots of Leptopilina in lab culture:

    But apart from that, not much. I couldn’t find anything on the braconid.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Panimerus 1:53 pm 05/1/2012

    The parasite wasp stuff is probably what I enjoy the most of your work.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Michalaki 7:48 pm 06/25/2013

    That’s an upside to the story of drunk fruit flies I didn’t know yet. Very cool!
    While on the topic, I loved this experiment too!

    Link to this

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