Wednesday, 9 April 2008

No Flies On Them

Back in September last year, under the subject Snail Mail, I was just a little sarcastic about Professor Steve Ormerod, a researcher at Cardiff University. More specifically, I was (justifiably, in my opinion) somewhat scathing about his time spent counting snails in drainage ditches, only to conclude that some of the slimy buggers were on their way to extinction. Quite a few folks from Cardiff University visited my post, and at least one of them put forth an opposing view - quite a tricky thing to do whilst embracing a tree, I'd have thought, but full marks for trying.

Sadly, however, after a long innings, Professor Ormerod's efforts have finally be knocked off the top spot as Daftest Research I've Seen In A Month Of Sundays. For, according to this article in the Telegraph, "One of the most exotic and elusive flies known to science has been rediscovered, four decades after it was first found buzzing around a Caribbean crab."

No, really? Perhaps a rolled up newspaper might be in order? Not according to the Telegraph: "To me it was like seeing the Yeti," exclaims Dr Marcus Stensmyr, one of the team that made the find in an expedition to Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, the sole known home of this species, to resolve enduring questions about how the fly fits into the tree of life.

A Yeti? So he was looking at this fly through a (presumably rose-tinted) magnifying glass? And what's this about the Caribbean? No drainage ditches for the boffins from Professor Bill Hansson's group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Germany, then? Seemingly not, although their efforts did involve vacating their jeep and dashing up to a roadside land crab in the hours of darkness, then inspecting it in the beams of their flashlights. And, having spotted the aforesaid flies living on it, they picked the crab up despite it offering some objections. I know, it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it - though I must admit I'm not sure why.

Nor am I encouraged by the closing paragraph of the article: "There are still many unanswered questions regarding the flies which we hopefully will be able to address in the coming years. A key mystery is what the heck the adult flies are doing on the crabs. When you see them they most of the time just sit there, they don't seem to be doing anything."

YEARS? It's going to take them YEARS to study a virtually unknown species of fly, so they can find out why it sits on a crab? Is this piece of groundbreaking research likely to change the world in any significant way? Does anyone (beyond the Grand Cayman-visiting boffins, the fly and the crab) give a damn why it sits there? Somehow, I doubt it, but it makes Professor Steve Ormerod's ditch-diving exploits look positively reasonable, doesn't it?

The world's in deep economic trouble, there is civil (and not so civil) unrest around the globe and we need all the qualified scientists we can get to sort out minor issues like famine and disease. And these folks want to spend years studying a fly that nobody's even seen for 40 years. The world has, very definitely, parted company with its senses!

Billy Seggars.

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