High flies: arctic to alpine

It’s a widely known pattern in biology that higher latitudes are similar to higher elevations in many ways – as we go toward the poles or toward mountain summits we see similar changes in life zones, we cross a tree line, the temperature decreases, seasonal changes become pronounced and life is harsh for the species that live in those more extreme habitats. Flies are one of the groups of animals that dominates at both high latitudes and high elevations, often replacing other insect orders as they drop out or become rare.

Some previous posts have mentioned our ongoing research on arctic flies as part of the Northern Biodiversity Program; this one takes us in another direction – uphill to the alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains.

M.Sc. student Alyssa MacLeod spent several weeks in 2010 collecting several thousand specimens of Diptera in alpine meadows along the front range of the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Alberta in order to examine the patterns of species diversity in widely separated high elevation meadows as we move from south to north. Alyssa’s project examines the assemblages of species in several key sites from Colorado, Wyoming and southern and central Alberta. Results to date have already turned up some surprising new records, and it will be interesting to discover what, if anything, a “typical” alpine meadow Diptera assemblage looks like. Alyssa will also be comparing her Rocky Mountain data against another data set collected from high elevation meadows in the southern Appalachian Mountains by former Lyman undergrad project student Maura Forrest.

Sweeping alpine meadow, Montana

In other alpine news, our Diptera collection received another boost recently with a donation of several hundred pinned specimens of flower-visiting flies – the collection is especially rich in flower flies (Syrphidae) and bee flies (Bombyliidae) – collected in high alpine meadows in central Colorado by another ex-Lymanite, Jessica Forrest, now a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis.

As we continue to look north, and to look up, we may be able to determine if flies react the same way to changes in latitude as they do to changes in altitude.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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