“150 new species of flies found” – in Singapore

Patrick Grootaert, the Head of the Department of Entomology of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, has spent a year with us at the Raffles Museum.

Originally intending to publish a book on dolilchopodids off Southeast Asia, the explosion of diversity he uncovered in Singapore alone has provided plenty of material and hardly enough time to describe it all. In fact he is now restricting the book to the species found in mangroves of Singapore.

He is a passionate and exciting speaker and will discuss his findings and thoughts about tropical diversity and his Singapore sabbatical experience at a seminar on 23 Feb 2006: 2pm at the National University of Singapore. The seminar notice will be announced here.

“150 new species of flies found.” By Chang Ai-Lien. The Straits Times, 06 Feb 2006. Belgian expert discovers them in one year of research here. [pdf]

CALL him lord of the flies. In a single year here, Dr Patrick Grootaert has uncovered an unprecedented 150 new species of long-legged flies – to add to the 44 already known to exist.

‘This is really a large number, especially for such a small country,’ said Dr Grootaert, curator of flies at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences who has spent the past year in Singapore. ‘For a biologist, it’s a dream come true.’ Dr Grootaert, 53, is a specialist in long-legged flies, which with their large greenish eyes are some of the more attractive members of the fly kingdom. They are also its assassins, and have developed large mouth parts to crush insects and pierce them to suck out their juices.

Some of the richest repositories of his six-legged treasures were the Central Catchment Area, Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa. The mangroves here are home to perhaps the world’s richest collection of long-legged flies, he said. ‘I was so surprised to find so many species here, with different communities living in microhabitats just 500m apart. We are just scratching the surface and the information is already overwhelming.’ He said the vast spectrum of creatures still undiscovered in tiny pockets of biodiversity here makes it even more critical to save what is left.

‘Singapore is like an open laboratory. All you need is a short drive and you get to see insects in their natural habitats, displaying and feeding,’ he said.

This is not the first time flies have been under the microscope here. In 2003, a group of researchers was given $250,000 by the United States National Science Foundation to study flies. The five-year project, which started in 2004, is part of a massive international effort, called Tree Of Life, to document the world’s biodiversity. Surprisingly little is known about flies, even thought they have been a key part of the earth’s fauna for at least 250 million years.

About 120,000 species of flies and mosquitoes – which belong to the same group as they have only one pair of functional wings (other insects have two) – have been discovered.

However, scientists estimate that millions of species remain unknown, particularly in this region.

Many will never be known. Singapore has lost about half its animal species in the past 200 years.

A National University of Singapore (NUS) study in 2003 estimated that at least 881 of 3,196 recorded species have vanished forever. Taking into account the probable number of animals here before detailed records were made in the late 1800s, the study predicted that the actual figure is even higher.

Singapore’s nature reserves, which make up 0.25 4 – 5* [Ed.] per cent of the island’s land area, are home to many of the native plants and animals here. Because of its tropical location, the variety of species that have survived is still rich enough to draw scientists from all over the world hoping to unearth new flora and fauna.

Specimens of the flies discovered by Dr Grootaert are housed at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS.

Museum director Peter Ng is one of many scientists who believe less than 10 per cent of the animals of South-east Asia are known to science. Dr Grootaert’s work was yet more evidence of the multitude of creatures just waiting to be discovered, he said. ‘We must go all out to save what we have left.’


Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

*Brook et al (2003) estimated that more than 50% of Singapore’s native biodiversity is found in 0.25% of Singapore’s land area (within forest reserves), and not that Singapore only has 0.25% of nature reserves.

“Repulsive? No, fascinating” By Chang Ai-Lien. The Straits Times, 06 Feb 2006. Belgian expert discovers them in one year of research here. [pdf]

Repulsive? No, fascinating FAR from being dirty and repulsive, flies are fascinating, reckons Belgian fly expert Patrick Grootaert, who has uncovered a wealth of new species here.

‘It is really surprising how beautiful and complex these little creatures are,’ said the curator of flies at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

The males of one species, for example, are armed with barbed legs to wrestle each other during heated mating matches, while the female waits on the sidelines for the winner to claim her.

Other males have special bristles on their forelegs which they wave at potential mates.

There is much to learn about the humble fly and the field is starting to get more attention these days, said Dr Grootaert. ‘People weren’t interested before, but now more are turning to it because it is one of the unexplored frontiers of science.’ Since different species live under precise conditions in forests and swamps, they can also be a good litmus test of whether a certain environment or ecosystem is healthy.

Dr Grootaert’s speciality – long-legged flies – even has potential benefits. Well-known for their predatory behaviour, they could be used in pest control, he said.


A very diverse group of flies found on the mudflats in mangroves, which feeds on larvae of other insects in the mud. Dr Grootaert found 18 such species here, mostly in Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa. Neurigona squamifera
Its forelegs (below) are adorned with black flattened bristles, which the male waves to invite the female to mate.  
A new group of flies first found on the National University of Singapore campus, they live on tree trunks.


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