Flies Of Fancy: Alkali Flies
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake
Tufa State Reserve
He avoids contact with people whenever possible. Disdaining
scuba tanks, he is often seen moving around underwater,
breathing from air bubbles trapped among his body hairs.
He can even walk on water.
Sounds like a particularly talented, but surly, member
of the Search and Rescue Dive Team, you say? Wrong!
A few more hints: his life immediately prior to adulthood
was spent just lying around, appearing lethargic enough
to make one wonder whether he would ever amount to anything.
But, hey, wasn't that the case for a lot of us, too?
Many of his ancestors never made it past that stage
of their lives, instead becoming food for the natives
who lived in the area. They tasted good.
But this one matured; became an adult. His full name
is Ephydra hydropyrus hians. The middle name means "water
fire." Many folks call him a "brine fly,"
but "alkali fly" is most accurate, according
to the scientists.
Yep, a fly. A member of that pesky order of insects
that we all love to hate. Why did God make flies anyway?
Why do they have to bite us, hover around us, make that
awful whining buzz, and feed on yucky, putrifying gunk
before arriving to trample over our picnic food with
their germy feet? All flies are worthless, crummy pests.
Wrong again, I'm afraid. You see, the flies that inhabit
Mono Lake are different from most of their obnoxious
cousins. Visit the shore of Mono Lake during warm weather
and you may encounter a three-foot-wide, black, buzzing
band of brine flies blocking your way to the beach.
But, never fear, all you need do is approach and they
will hurriedly fly away from you. If one happens to
bump into your leg, you can be assured it was a mistake.
They don't like us. I think they consider people awful
and bothersome (perhaps even yucky).
Their nice behavior may have something to do with an
alkali fly's choice of food. They are primarily vegetarians,
feasting on algae found along the shore and on the submerged
rocks of Mono Lake. So they have no appetite for human
But they do have lots of enemies that are interested
in making a meal out of them. Birds love them. It's
interesting to watch a gull wading along through the
crowded mass of flies by the shore, swiping and pecking
at the flies. As the bird walks, the flies clear out,
but they seem to know just how far to go to be out of
reach. The result is that the gull looks like it has
a force field surrounding it that repels all flies within
six inches of its beak.
Of course, now and then, the beak is quicker than the
If there were olympic games to celebrate the ultimate
achievements in alkali fly talents, one of the events
would be speed skating. Not on ice, but over the surface
of the liquid water. There would have to be other events
even less familiar to us. Like underwater rock climbing.
The adult flies don't dive and swim when they go underwater
to eat and lay eggs. Instead, they walk down, using
hooked claws to cling to the tufa rocks. I imagine scoring
criteria for this event would include both speed and
style: "Incredible! For the first time in history
a successful one-claw transfer between tufas has been
completed. But he's about out of air now..."
A whole series of events might be built around their
ability to breathe underwater by encasing themselves
in bubbles of air. Of course, the temptation for alkali
fly athletes to boost their bristly body hair density,
in order to trap bigger and bigger bubbles of air as
they enter the lake, could lead to deplorable abuses
of banned substances (whatever the fly equivalent of
anabolic steroids might be).
The adolescent larvae athletes could compete in algae
scraping contests, crawling over tufa rocks to see who
could first fill his belly. Or lime gland weight-lifting,
for those who have best refined their ability to handle
the carbonates in the alkaline water by mixing it with
calcium and storing the resultant tufa-like stuff in
an increasingly heavy, glandular pocket.
Even the pupae that appear so outwardly quiet in their
brown, coccoon-like cases, could show off their amazing
abilities at time-warping. Just how far can the limits
be pushed? In one arena, flies are vying for the 3-day
pupation record; it's hot in there, folks. While over
here, two flies are chilled dangerously close to the
point of death, attempting to extend their pupa stages
to 10 weeks. What is this thing we call time, anyway?
Both sets of flies will complete identical portions
of their allotted lives, but in vastly different spans,
solely dependent on temperature.
Amazing facts, certainly. But who really cares, you
ask? They are still only a bunch of flies, after all.
Well, besides the thousands of birds that feast on
them, the Kuzedika Paiute Indians cared. They relied
on fly pupae as on of the staples of their diets. Our
culture's dietary staples are corn and wheat. For the
Kuzedika residents of the Mono Basin it was pinyon pinenuts
and fly pupae. They called the pupae, "kutsavi,"
and used it as a supplement to other food or just as
a popcorn-style handfood.
Kutsavi was good food. Good in terms of nutrition,
but also flavor. In fact, it was a highly valued trade
item. Indians from far away coveted Mono Lake's fly
Which brings us to the word "mono". Did you
know the lake is in "Fly Pupae County"? "Mono"
is a Yokuts word. The Yokuts Indians lived west of Yosemite,
and would hike up into the mountains during the summer
to trade with the Yosemite Miwoks and with the Paiutes,
who had traveled over the Sierras from the east side.
The Yokuts loved "mono," yummy, nicely-seasoned
fly pupae from the salty sea across the mountains.
Why don't we call this "Kutsavi Lake" and
"Kutsavi County?" Why use a name from people
that lived so far away?
Because of the way California was settled, the Anglo
culture made contact with the Indians on the west side
of the mountains first. One story is that when the lake
was officially discovered by a U.S. Cavalry troop chasing
Indians eastward from Yosemite, their guides were Yokuts.
The guides taught them the name "mono" for
this area. And that name is what we still use today:
Mono Lake, Mono County, the Mono Cone...
It all goes back to a little fly that has the unique
ability to survive in the harsh alkaline waters of Mono
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