Horse flies and deer flies are members of the largest family of bloodsucking insects—the Tabanidae, with more than 4,000 species described worldwide. Nearly all females feed on blood, which is needed for the development of eggs. That blood can transmit parasites to humans and livestock. All males and some females feed on nectar and pollen, and are important pollinators.
I started working with insects as an undergraduate student in Brazil, because I enjoyed drawing and wanted to be a scientific illustrator. After a few weeks of interning, I learned about entomology collections and taxonomy, and started a project with horse flies. My fascination did not end there, these horse flies then became the subject of my studies as an undergrad, and subsequently, as a Master’s and PhD student. During my PhD, I shifted the focus of my research to molecular systematics—using DNA to study their evolutionary relationships—and I became interested in using next generation sequencing and phylogenomic data (genetic data from across the whole genome used to investigate evolutionary histories).
A project sponsored by the Global Genome Initiative allowed me to spend two weeks in the Amazon rainforest collecting horse flies in collaboration with a team from the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). The goal was to collect as many horse fly genera as possible, and for that reason, we chose the State of Amazonas in Brazil. It is the richest area of the world for horse fly diversity, with a total of 84 species known, distributed in 16 genera, and three subfamilies. We set up malaise traps in forest trails and near tributary rivers (known as “igarapés”), and suspended the traps at 80ft high in the canopy in several locations near the cities of Presidente Figueiredo and Manaus.
It was a great experience to spend several disconnected days in the Amazon Rainforest, visiting different habitats, chasing different species of horse flies according to the time of the day, and sleeping in a hammock at night. With this project, we were able to obtain representatives of 32 species, 13 genera, and two subfamilies of horse flies. These samples are deposited at the Smithsonian’s Biorepository and will be available for ongoing and future genomic research, and thus contributing to a better understanding of the Amazonian fauna and the evolutionary history of flies.