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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 7, 2005

Flies key to genetic research

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The native Hawaiian picture-wing flies are amazing little creatures, known both for the intricate patterns on their translucent wings and for their amazing genetic adaptations to the Hawaiian environment.

There are more than 100 individual species, some quite rare.

In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed 12 of them for endangered species status.

But the service said it never got beyond the proposed listing. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Barbara Maxfield said that is because its endangered-species money has been redirected to listing the critical habitats of already-named endangered species. The agency was ordered by a federal court to prepare critical habitat listings.

Hawaiian picture wings, sometimes called pomace flies, vinegar flies or drosophila, are believed to have evolved from a single-introduced fly. Some folks just call them fruit flies, but they are different from the introduced fruit flies that attack the state's oranges, papayas and other crops.

They have evolved to feed on specific plants in the Hawaiian environment, and have developed unique wing patterns and behaviors. They have also been used extensively in genetic research.

"Hawai'i's picture wings are marvels of nature. Few species have contributed so much to human understanding of genetics. Research on their immune systems may one day lead to a cure for AIDS, cancer, or the West Nile virus," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Among the things threatening individual species are introduced insects, some of which, like non-native meat-eating wasps, prey on the flies. Suckling said nearly half of all the picture wings are in serious decline.

The courts could again get involved to prod the agency to move the picture-wing flies onto the list. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a complaint in federal District Court in Portland, Ore., asking that it order the service to do the work needed to put the 12 rare picture-wings onto the list.

If they are listed, they will join more than 300 Hawaiian plants and creatures.

There are 347 listed species, if the O'ahu tree snails are considered — as most scientific folks consider them — 41 distinct species.

Or there are 317 if, as some folks in Washington figure, the O'ahu achatinella are just one species.

If you have a question or concern about the Hawaiian environment, drop a note to Jan TenBruggencate at P.O. Box 524, Lihu'e, HI 96766, e-mail jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or call (808) 245-3074.