One of Earth’s most underappreciated animals, the common fly, gets a PR makeover in a new book by biologist Jonathan Balcombe. “Superfly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects” invites readers to closely examine flies, with a fresh awareness of their unique lives and place in various ecosystems. Balcombe joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share his knowledge of, and esteem for, the much-maligned flies that help sustain our planet.
Balcombe’s specialty area of study:
“My specialty is ethology, which is a branch of biology that focuses on animal behavior. Ethologists especially like to observe and study animals, preferably in their natural setting, where the behavior that you can see appears to be more authentic. Whenever we take them into captivity, it can somewhat skew the reality of their behavior,” said Balcombe.
“Ethology is a relatively new field of biology, a 20th-century field. It’s really exciting to me, I really enjoy watching animals. I never get tired of it. And the more I learn, paradoxically, the more questions there are to ask.”
On new observances in the field of animal awareness:
“Consciousness has probably evolved at least twice, and perhaps several times, through evolutionary history. Invertebrate animals are all conscious, and now we have good evidence that octopuses and squids are all conscious, and that evolved separately. And there’s also some evidence that insects as well, and probably other groups of animals, that are consciously aware,” said Balcombe. “Flies have an attention span, for instance. Certainly, there’s indications that these tiny animals have experiences.”
The underestimated value of flies:
“Humankind has spent billions of dollars trying to kill flies over the last thirty years, and mere pennies trying to protect them. And we’re now entering an era where insect numbers have decreased by about half in the last 50 years, according to several study estimates, and that’s scary because insects are extremely useful to us… We wouldn’t survive without them.”