Flight of the wingless coffin fly

As Sissy Willis, among others, has pointed out, I was guilty of some sloppy wordplay a few posts back when, in making the argument that blogs are, at their best, bacterial, I conflated “parasite” and “scavenger.” Oh what a tangled web we weave when we practice to amuse!

A digression: Speaking of tangled webs, my original post made a cross-species leap to the mainstream media when it was picked up, in a slightly morphed form, by the Guardian. It was then further recycled by another MSM outlet, the Hindu, from which it made the leap back, in semidigested form, into the blogosphere, where, I believe, it resides to this day, picked over by desultory buzzards. I don’t know what all that means for my metaphor, but I sense that it has broken down, fulfilling its destiny.

Maybe that wasn’t such a digression after all.

A real digression: When you search for “practice to deceive” on Google, the machine asks you:

Did you mean: “practice to receive”

Algorithms are such philistines. But you have to forgive them. They mean well.

End of digression.

Did I mention that today is Rough Type’s second birthday? That means it’s forty-eight in people years.

Back to Sissy:

We checked out Carr’s post and realized he’s got the right argument – big time, a must read [damn straight] – re how bloggers ingest and recycle MSM droppings, but the wrong word. Carr appears to use parasite and scavenger interchangeably, and that’s where he goes wrong.

Guilty, and inexcusably so. Distraught. O’erbrimmed with shame.

And yet, as the evolutionists will tell you, sloppiness is sometimes a virtue. In my confusion may lie, as in the gut of a rodent, a small seed of truth. I call your attention (if you can spare a thimbleful of that scarce resource) to the fact that nature herself at times would seem to share my confusion, dispensing from her handbag several organisms that have a dual identity as parasite and scavenger. Take the lowly humpbacked fly, which is also known as the coffin fly (for its tendency to feed on corpses). As the Encyclopedia Britannica tells us (in a free snippet), the humpbacked, or coffin, fly is:

any of numerous species of tiny, dark-coloured flies with humped backs that are in the fly order, Diptera, and can be found around decaying vegetation. Larvae may be scavengers, parasites, or commensals in ant and termite nests. Some species have reduced or no wings.

A commensal, by the way, is an organism that lives off another organism without either helping or harming that other organism. And if you think that adds another wrinkle to the discussion, you are right.

What I’m getting at here is that blogs need not be narrowly categorized as parasites or scavengers. A blog, like the larvae of a humpbacked fly in a termite colony, can be a scavenger or a parasite – or even, for that matter, a commensal. Or all three at once.

It cannot go unremarked (one more thimbleful, that’s all I ask) that termites themselves are, according to Wikipedia, that buzzard of human knowledge, “a prime example of decentralised, self-organised systems using swarm intelligence and use this cooperation [sic] to exploit food sources and environments that could not be available to any single insect acting alone.” Termite workers, we further learn, “are the main caste in the colony for the digestion of cellulose in food … the workers feed the other members of the colony with substances derived from the digestion of plant material, either from the mouth or anus … Termite workers are generally blind due to undeveloped eyes. Despite this limitation they are able to create elaborate nests and tunnel systems using a combination of soil, chewed wood/cellulose, saliva and faeces.”

Which, neatly if circuitously, brings us back to the blogosphere and, almost, to the end of this post.

“Some species have reduced or no wings.” Ah, the wingless coffin fly, mon semblable, mon frère!

4 thoughts on “Flight of the wingless coffin fly

  1. Brian

    Uh… ok. Started the anniversary celebration a little early, huh..? *hic*

    Congrats on your anniversary and check out the ads that Google is serving up for this post. Hmm, colon cleanser? I’m sure it’s not an editorial comment or anything — mere mindless algorithmism (try saying *that* after a few beers). Cheers.


  2. Kieren Pitts

    I think that EB quote might be a bit ambiguous.

    It’s not saying that the larvae of a specific species of hump-backed fly can fulfill all three roles (scavenger, parasite or commensal).

    What it’s saying is that, within the 4,000+ species of hump-backed flies, there are species that have larvae that are parasites, there are species that have larvae that are scavengers and there are species that have larvae that engage in commensalism in ant or termite nests. The larvae can’t, I’m afraid, be all three at once (it’s impossible to be a commensal organism whilst also acting as a predator on the same species) and so the analogy falls down.

    (Generalising within a taxonomic family is like comparing tigers with domestic cats – both being members of the family Felidae.)

    In the case of the hump-backed flies that are parasitoids of ants or termites, they are usually highly host specific and can only parasitise a small range of host species. It is for this reason that some are used as biological control agents. So, many species of Phorid are actually highly specific (“narrowly categorized”) rather than generalist.

    It should also be pointed out that coffin flies, in the sense of the few species of Phorid that carry this colloquial name, are not associated with ants or termites.

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