Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lord of the Flies

Sometimes, wildlife photography deals with the sublime and stunningly beautiful. Other times, well, there's a certain amount of ewww involved. So if you're easily creeped out, maybe this post isn't for you.

The Mono Lake basin has become a symbol for the conservation community and an example of what can go wrong when large metropolitan areas act like bullies and stop at nothing in their greed for resources to feed their growth. Over the years, it's become a draw to photographers because of its incredible views, unique geology and delicate ecosystems. Images usually focus on the iconic tufa formations (right) or expansive vistas (below).

When you actually go there and walk around, you're bound to notice one thing: the flies. Lots and lots and lots of  flies. And they're "special" flies, too. Really. They're pretty cool. They're called "alkali flies", and they live and breed at the shoreline of the lake. At times, they're so thick on the water that they look like a black carpet. If you walk near them, they swarm away from your feet, and land behind you, making it appear that the ground itself is parting at your stride. They don't bite, aren't interested in humans at all, but be careful breathing when you're walking through a cloud of them!

These little creatures spend two thirds of their life, as larvae and pupae, under water. Even as adults, they have the ability to trap air on their bodies so that they walk underwater and still breathe.

The Mono Lake Committee's website about the flies describes their "mind blowing" growth process: "When the adult fly is ready to emerge from the pupa case its head comes apart! The head separates and a small sac inflates and pops the top off the pupa case. The sac then collapses, the fly's head reassembles itself, and the fly emerges from the case to float to the surface where it then begins its adult life cycle."

And maybe what's best about these little guys is that they're great to eat. Okay, no, I don't know that from first hand experience. But the gull that I shot while hiking along the south shore of Mono certainly seemed to be enjoying himself as he walked amongst the black cloud, feasting away.

Once upon a time, the mono basin was inhabited by a Paiute tribe that, in their language, were called the "Kutzadika'a"...which roughly translates to "Fly Eaters". During the summer months when the tribe was hunting and gathering around the shores of Mono Lake, they would gather the fly pupae, which are rich in both fat and protein, dry them, and cook them in stews. Yum!

So much food, so little time!