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Desert Diary



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Almost nobody uses Latin, but there are times when knowing a Latin word comes in handy. One such word is "ptera", spelled p-t-e-r-a. It translates as "wing", and we see it a lot in biology. The extinct flying reptiles are pterodactyls, translating as finger wings; our bats are chiropterans, the hand wings; and then there's the diptera, meaning two wings. Dipterans are ubiquitous in our desert, though you know them better as flies and mosquitoes. But why the term "diptera"?

It contrasts the fly group with other winged insects, who have four wings, one pair on the second thoracic segment and one pair on the third. And just to show that you can't trust a fly, they actually do have four wings, but the hind pair are transformed into balancers, preventing them from spinning out of control. How do we know these balancers are really wings? Simple. Trick the genetic system of a developing maggot into considering the third segment to be a second segment, and "diptera" is no longer applicable.

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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Delhi Sands flower-loving fly

Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. Photograph by Marjory Nelson, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.