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Hairy Rarity: Fly That Can't Fly Rediscovered

Male hairy flies (shown here) are larger than females and reach a length of about 0.4 in. (1 cm). (Image credit: Robert Copeland.)

Not seen in more than 60 years, a fly covered with teensy yellow hairs has been discovered hiding out in a crack in a single cave-like rock in Kenya, researchers announced this week.

Known as Mormotomyia hirsuta, or the "terrible, hairy fly," the insect looks more like a fluffy spider than a fly. It sports tiny eyes that appear as red spots and strap-like wings, which are nonfunctional. [Image of hairy fly]

"Since Mormotomyia cannot fly, there is a strong possibility that it is really restricted to this tiny habitat," said Robert Copeland of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, and Texas A&M University. "If that is the case, it would be wonderful if the entire Ukazi Hill, on which it is found, were declared a national heritage area and given suitable conservation protection."

Copeland and fellow dipterist (fly scientist) Ashley Kirk-Spriggs from South Africa's National spotted the fly in Ukazi Hill, along the Thika-Garissa Road. Until now, the fly had been collected on only two previous occasions, in 1933 and 1948.

Like us, males are the hairy gender for these flies. "Females have far fewer hairs and these tend to be comparatively short, while the larger males are pretty much covered with long hairs," Copeland told LiveScience.

Why so hairy? Copeland threw out several ideas, including the possibility the hairs may act as a Velcro of sorts to help the mating pair attach to each other, though he admits, "I can't really see how." Perhaps the hairs are dressed-up stingers, though Copeland has handled plenty of live adults with no stinging. Maybe they are stay-away hairs, "but, if so, why don't females have long hairs?"

Essentially, it's a hairy mystery that Copeland says is fodder for a master's or doctoral thesis.

You can see their hairy-fly expedition as well as video of the fly on the move.

You can follow LiveScience Managing Editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.

Jeanna Bryner
Before becoming managing editor, Jeanna served as a reporter for Live Science and SPACE.com for about three years. Previously she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a Master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a science journalism degree from New York University. Follow Jeanna on Google+.