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Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

South Africans have always looked up to Lesotho, quite literally, as the entire landlocked country is on average 900 metres higher than South Africa (Midgley et al. 2023). The high altitude also means that Lesotho has more abundant alpine vegetation (in this case meaning vegetation above 2800 metres above sea level) and harbours a greater diversity of alpine-adapted species.

Despite this enticing opportunity for discovery, Lesotho insects have largely been under-sampled and under-reported. This has historically been exacerbated by Lesotho’s geography. After all, it’s not called the Mountain Kingdom for nothing! In the 1950s, Swedish researchers from Lund University had to make use of airplanes and horseback to reach inaccessible areas of Lesotho (Brink 1955). Explorers from several South African museums probed the country’s biodiversity in the 1960s and 1970s (Kirk-Spriggs 2017), but little, if any, work has been done on the flies of Lesotho in the last 50 years. However, times are changing, and with Lesotho’s booming mining industry, more and more roads and mountain passes are now tarred and can be driven—albeit carefully—by most sedans.

I joined researchers from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Albany Museum and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, who planned to undertake several trips to Lesotho aiming to traverse diverse vegetation and expand on the knowledge of the flies of the Kingdom (Midgley et al. 2023). Our initial attempts were stifled by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting fallout of the pandemic. Finally in 2021, we were able to ascend into Lesotho, hand sanitiser and facemasks in tow. Over the three years that followed, 29 sites were visited (Fig. 1) and over 7000 specimens from 66 fly families were collected, more than double the number of specimens held in the collections of South African museums at the onset of our endeavour. The sampling sites were a mix of natural and disturbed areas, allowing for a good general coverage of biodiversity.

We were met with torrential rain at Afriski Mountain Resort, almost losing a Malaise trap when a small stream grew into a river (Fig. 2). The rain, however, turned out to be a blessing, with the wet weather driving insects—usually sitting a bit deeper in vegetation—up and out. This resulted in us discovering the first world case of wing reduction in snipe flies (Midgley and Muller 2023). The females of Atherimorpha latipennis (Fig. 3) are brachypterous, meaning they have tiny wings (Fig. 3, insert). Several species of this genus are only known from the males (Fig. 4), so the possibility of more females being brachypterous exists, but as is usually the case, you need to be at the right place at the right time (of which both variables are not always known).

During a bout of sunshine amidst the deluge, we also collected a new species of Coenosia (family Muscidae), better known as Tiger flies. This species ended up being the first published record of the genus for Lesotho (Muller and Midgley 2022). Coenosia is conversely very well-known from South Africa and also occurs in the Drakensberg, further highlighting how under-collected Lesotho is for flies. Several additional species and yet another new species of Coenosia have been found in subsequent samples from Lesotho, so much work still needs to be done. To our surprise, Atherigona, another Muscidae genus colloquially known as shootflies, had never been recorded in Lesotho. Several species were sampled from grassland and agricultural areas, including a species new to science. This genus is a major agricultural pest of sorghum, maize and other cereal crops throughout the world. The diversity of this genus will be the topic of a planned scientific paper by the museum staff later in the year.

Much remains to be done in terms of recording and studying the fly diversity of Lesotho, to this end a special topical collection has been created in the journal African Invertebrates (Midgley et al. 2023). The hope is that through future collaboration with other Diptera specialists we will be able to get one step closer to better understanding the flies of the Kingdom of the Sky.

References

Brink, P. 1955. Swedish Exploration of South African Animal Life during 200 years. In: Hanström, B., Brink, P. & Rudebeck, G. (Eds), South African animal life. Results of the Lund University Expedition in 1950–1951. Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm, 11–61.

Kirk-Spriggs, A.H. 2017. 1. Introduction and brief history of Afrotropical Dipterology. In: Kirk-Spriggs, A.H.  & Sinclair, B.J. (Eds), Manual of Afrotropical Diptera. Volume 1. Introductory chapters and keys to Diptera families. Suricata 4. Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute, 1–67.

Midgley, J.M., Muller, B.S., Theron, G.L., Phoofolo, M., Bellingan, T.A. & Jordaens, K. 2023. The Diptera of Lesotho: a history of collecting in the Mountain Kingdom, summary of recent collecting sites and introduction to the topical collection in African Invertebrates. African Invertebrates, 64(3), 207–220. https://doi.org/10.3897/afrinvertebr.64.108525

Midgley, J.M.& Muller, B.S. 2023. Description of the female of Atherimorpha latipennis Stuckenberg (Diptera, Rhagionidae): the first record of brachyptery in Rhagionidae. ZooKeys, 1178, 265–277. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1178.107357

Mucina, L.& Rutherford, M.C. (Eds) 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute, 807 pp.

Muller, B.S.& Midgley, J.M. 2022. How strange: Coenosia curiosa sp. nov. (Diptera: Muscidae), the first recorded Tiger fly from Lesotho, with revision of the Coenosia globuliseta-group. Zootaxa, 5222, 367–377. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.5222.4.5

Figure captions

Figure 1: Map of Lesotho showing recent (red) and historical (white) collecting sites, as well as the different vegetation types (Image: Midgley et al. 2023; vegetation data based on Mucina and Rutherford (2006)).

Figure 2: Dr John Midgley (KwaZulu-Natal Museum) who has just finished setting up a Malaise trap up over a small stream. This stream would rise above the rocks later that day and envelope the entire trap due to torrential rains (Photo by Burgert Muller).

Figure 3: Female of Atherimorpha latipennis, the insert showing the reduced wing of the female (Images: Midgley and Muller (2023)).

Figure 4: Male of Atherimorpha latipennis with very well-developed wings (Image: Midgley and Muller 2023).

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Author

Burgert is a Senior Museum Scientist in the Department Terrestrial Invertebrates. His research interests are systematics, taxonomy, phylogeny and biogeography of true flies (Diptera), with special emphasis on Muscidae and Athericidae. He is also interested in Cybertaxonomy and literature mark-up, as well as Collections data quality assessment and use, which includes georeferencing, ecological niche modelling and collections information management. In 2014 Burgert obtained his Master’s degree for a thesis titled: Systematics of the shoot fly subgenus Atherigona s. str. (diptera: muscidae) of South Africa.

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