An amazing evolution-defying design in a tiny insect

AUGUST, 1929: in the sun-baked southeast African territory of Nyasaland (now called Malawi) medical entomologist (insect specialist) W.A. Lamborn discovered an extraordinary behaviour of the larva of the horsefly, genus Tabanus.

Remarkable and novel

He wrote a detailed description, and sent specimens, to his long-time friend E.B. Poulton, an Oxford University professor and fellow of the British Royal Society. Poulton judged ‘this elaborate adaptation’ in the larva of a fly to be ‘so remarkable and novel’ as to warrant immediate communication to the Royal Society, which published Lamborn’s findings in one of its scientific journals in early 1930.1

Years later, George McGavin, a well-known Oxford entomology professor, came across the story. He described the unusual behaviour of Tabanus as an ‘ingenious trick’ which, he said, ‘is literally unique to this one genus of horsefly’.2

Amazing ‘one-off’ designs in nature

Recently, McGavin was asked by an Oxford colleague, the noted atheist and evolutionary zoologist Richard Dawkins, to come up with instances of ‘“good ideas” that have evolved only once’.3 Dawkins was looking for further examples to supplement two he already had in mind: ‘ … the wheel, with a true, freely rotating bearing, seems to have evolved only once, in bacteria, before being finally invented in human technology. Language, too, has apparently evolved only in us … .’4

In response, says Dawkins, Prof. McGavin referred to bombardier beetles of the genus Brachinus, which mix chemicals to make an explosion; and to the archer fish, which shoots a missile to knock prey down from a distance. He also gave an ‘honourable mention’ to antlions, spitting spiders, the bolas spider and the diving bell spider.5 But his ‘champion example’ of an evolutionary ‘one-off’ was the Tabanus horsefly.2 Dawkins assigned this fly a starring role in the climactic section of his latest book, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.

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