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Ant-decapitating fly found popping heads off ants in Glendale

by Robert Garrova | Off-Ramp®

Pseudacteon californiensis, AKA an ant-decapitating fly Photo Courtesy Natural History Museum/BioSCAN

In asphalt-covered L.A., weird, exotic and especially big bugs have a knack for catching our eye, even if it's just for a few minutes. We'll usually stop what we're doing to snap a picture of a praying mantis on our phones, or gawk at a flying beetle. 

Now, according to Lisa Gonzalez of the Natural History Museum, Angelenos can keep a lookout for a certain type of fly with gruesome, parasitic tendencies.

They're called ant-decapitating flies (or ADFs for short) and recently, scientists at the Natural History Museum found them living in Glendale. Gonzalez says these flies lay their eggs inside a particular type of ant. When the egg hatches (still inside the ant) a tiny maggot starts working its way to the head of the ant. "Once it gets to a particular stage, the head of the ant actually pops off and that fly then pupates and becomes an adult fly," Gonzalez says.

Researchers at the Natural History Museum might not have come across these insects in L.A. if it weren't for a program they started in 2012 called BioSCAN. With the help of citizen scientists and the larger community, the BioSCAN program has the mission of "exploring biodiversity" in the city.

These ADFs were discovered thanks to a trap that BioSCAN organizers set up in a Glendale resident's backyard. But what about the glaring question: Can these ant-decapitating flies lay eggs in human heads?

"That's a good question that I get asked all the time," Gonzalez says. "No, they cannot."

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