Ashley H. Kirk-Spriggs & Bradley J. Sinclair (editors)
Reviewed by George C. McGavin
Tipping the scales at just over 4.3 kg, the third volume of the Manual of Afrotropical Diptera is one of the biggest entomological books I’ve ever picked up. You wouldn’t want it falling off a shelf on your head, so to avoid concussion, you can download the volume free gratis at https://www.nhm.ac.uk/content/dam/nhmwww/our-science/our-work/biodiversity/manual-afrotropical-diptera/manual-afrotropical-diptera-volume-three. I am not going to pretend for one minute that I have read the whole of this magnum opus, but I note there is a misplaced comma on page 1,765 – (just kidding).
Covering fifty-one families from the Platypezidae to the Cryptochetidae, it is a colossal labour of love and international cooperation, guided and orchestrated by the clearly indefatigable Ashley Kirk-Spriggs and Bradley Sinclair. Lavishly illustrated, with keys to genera and extensive references it is, like the two volumes that precede it, immensely authoritative and completely indispensable.
As I began to flick through the pages, I had to try to stop myself falling down the rabbit holes of the larger families, such as the true fruit flies (Tephritidae), the scuttle flies (Phoridae) and the hoverflies (Syrphidae). If I had a lifetime of lifetimes, it would be difficult to accumulate and assimilate the wealth of information recorded in this chunky volume, but of course that’s the whole point – I don’t have to. Instead, I can peer over the shoulders of undisputed masters and see what needs to be seen and learn what needs to be known.
It’s only when you read a book like this that you realise how little you know – in my case I have a valid excuse as I am not a dipterist. But here I can learn about the enigmatic nobody flies (Neminidae), the margin flies (Marginidae) and the weird beetle flies (Celyphidae) with a greatly enlarged scutellum that makes them look like, yes, you’ve guessed it, tiny beetles. Virtually nothing is known about the biology of many of the smaller fly families – for example, the long-legged, nocturnal ctenostylid flies (Ctenostylidae). I’ve never heard of the dwarf flies (Periscelididae) and bird flies (Carniidae), but I’d very much like to make their acquaintance. The one species I have decided is going to be on the list of things I’d love to see in the wild before I die is the single species, Mormotomyia hirsuta that makes up the family (the terrible hairy flies). Described in 1936 by Ernest Edward Austen, this spider-like and very hairy species lives in horizontal rock fissure where insectivorous bats roost. The adults are believed to feed on the bodily secretions of the bats and their larvae develop in bat guano. Thought to be the rarest fly in the world and known from only one location in Kenya recent evidence suggests that there are likely to be other extant populations nearby. Even if I never get to see it, knowing it survives will be comfort enough.
I am quite simply in awe of what has been achieved and have run out of superlatives. Entomologists now and in the future owe the multitude of authors who have poured their substantial knowledge and love of flies into the 2,379 pages of this volume, an enormous debt of gratitude.