Friday’s Featured Organism: Hippobosca equina

The little fucker.

by Francesco Lami

This one will be longer than usual.

You know, unlike some people who say to like animals when they only like dogs, horses, cats and pets in general, when I say that I like animals, I mean it. Blue whale or jellyfish, whip scorpion or gastrotrich, they’re all fascinating and beautiful in their own way. Hell, I find fascinating and important even animals that are fucking annoying like mosquitoes or even plain dangerous like parasite nematodes. But if there’s something that I find very hard to like even a little bit, although it DOES have remarkable capabilities, that’s Hippobosca equina.

To Hippobosca equina, I say “Fuck you”.

The common english name for this critter is “forest fly”, and in fact the times I’ve encountered it I was in the woods. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time: it was certainly a Diptera, and I suspected it was some kind of bloodsucker since it always returned stubbornly to bug me, no matter how hard I tried to drive it away. I discovered the family Hippoboscidae (louse flies) by chance navigating the internet, and it was clear that the mysterious fly was part of it, with its flattened body, long legs and that goddamn bloodsucking stylet. Discovering the exact species was easy because it turned out it was very common here in Italy. I read at Biodiversity in Focus that the reason they are flattened and have many setae on the thorax and the abdomen might be to hold on the feathers (and hair in this case, I guess) of their victims – seems a pretty good explanation to me, and the long, robust legs have probably the same function. I’ve never even been bitten by one of this animals, and they’re much less common than mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers, so why do I hate them so much? Because their ecological speciality is drive you insane. As I’ve already mentioned, they’re extremely stubborn; they take a hold on your skin and even if you force them away with your hand they come back in the exact same spot in less than half a second, like a goddamn living jet-powered boomerang. And that’s not the worst part – they’re indestructible. You simply can’t kill ’em because their exoskeleton is too fucking resilient. I tried with my bare hands, with a book, I even trapped one under a tissue and repeatedly smashed it with an heavy stone, but H. equina wasn’t even stunned, and continued to try to bite me. Mosquitoes and other insects have evolved not to be noticed while they bite you, and so they often succeed leaving you with unpleasant souvenirs; the forest fly just don’t give a fuck: it’s extremely easy to spot it and feel it on your skin, but it counts on the fact that it’s so relentless that you will soon be too tired to continue to resist it (and let’s not forget its near-immortality); and, since its favourite victims are horses and other animals that don’t have hands to continuously defend themselves, it surely works well.

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