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The diversity of thistle fruit flies

Female of a protected endemic thistle-fly species Urophora dzieduszyckii observing a young flower head of the globe thistle Echinops exaltatus

For decades, a loss of biodiversity has been observed all over the world. Extinction of species endangers the animal and plant community and, according to prognoses, could lead to a collapse of ecosystems worldwide. The interdependence of the animal and plant world is particularly evident on the example of insects. However, just one third of all insect species have been described, which means that a large number of them is threatened with extinction in the shadows. For this reason, the Ukrainian scientist Prof. Valery A. Korneyev has joined forces with researchers of the Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Discovery to describe the biodiversity of the thistle flies more comprehensively.

The thistle flies are a part of a big family of the true fruit flies or Tephritidae, which are remarkable for their special patterns on the wings and body and include about 150 species worldwide. Their larvae live in flower heads and stems of thistles. They have significant economic importance providing biological control of weeds, as the larvae feed in the seed heads of plants and thus significantly reduce their reproduction. In addition, the thistle flies take on another important function, as they are part of a fragile trophic net that connects many ecosystems.

Despite the great ecological and economic importance of thistle flies, this group of insects is so far poorly characterised. Numerous new species of fruit flies (Tephritidae) have only been discovered and described in the last 40 years. Therefore, within the framework of the research project, high-quality morphological images of the head, wings, mouthparts and other body parts will be produced to enable a revised description and familial classification of the flies. In complement to the morphological studies, genetic analyses will be used to reconstruct the evolution of the thistle flies. The comparison of the DNA allows an expanded perspective on the phylogenetic relationships of the thistle flies, enables the separation of different species and supports the characterisation of different developmental stages from larvae to adults.

An impressive collection of thistle flies from numerous countries is available for the research. Many of the specimens come from the European and Central Asian regions. At the beginning of March 2022, the scientist managed to evacuate all the essential parts of the collection from Kyiv to Berlin.

The project, which is funded within the Philipp Schwartz Initiative for researchers at risk by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, will make a crucial contribution to gaining a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of thistle flies and to describing new previously unknown groups of the flies.

Background information Prof. Valery Korneyev

Until the outbreak of the war, Prof. Valery Korneyev was Deputy Director of the I. I. Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology in Kyiv and Head of the Entomology & Collection Management Department. He is one of the world's leading entomologists and a distinguished expert in the field of the fruit flies. The connections between Prof. Valery Korneyev and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin go back since 1999, as he visited its Diptera collections almost every year.