I thought I would give you a sense of my work in science to give a better context for what I do for a living. Plus since it involves both evolution and climate change it gives me a chance to promote two of my favorite topics and the focus of this blog!
So what do I do? I study tsetse flies. Here is a picture:
These flies are rather strange. Unlike most flies which lay gazillions of eggs, these flies lay a single egg within their abdomen that they keep internally until the young larvae is ready to pupate at which time they carefully lay the little tyke in the ground. They can do this at most about nine times, a rather modest reproducer compared to their cousins. Flies that carry their young internally? I bet you didn’t know that! These flies are blood feeders, like vampires, except they can see themselves in the mirror. But they do carry a bit of terror about them. They carry some cracking bad diseases. And the trouble is they have evolved away from most of the medicines that treat the disease. Evolution in action. This is a picture of Trypanosoma brucei the organism carried by the fly that causes sleeping sickness*:
These flies do a lot of damage in equatorial Africa. It’s called the poverty fly. Why? Not only does it cause problems in human health, but it also affects draft animals. Last year, when I travelled through Ethiopia, right at the beginning of the rainy season, people were preparing the ground for crops:
Because animal power is the principal means of growing crops, there are regions where people can’t grow crops because of this fly. If you look at maps you can see patches of Ethiopia where the fly does not hang out. These are generally areas where the fly has been blocked by natural barriers in hilly and mountainous regions. The distribution of the fly is based on elevation because it is very sensitive to drying and cold. If you set a line of traps up an elevational gradient, you can mark a line where they just stop. Unfortunately because of the warming climate the places where the fly can’t reach is changing and the fly expanding its range. This has a direct impact on where people can grow food. Because animal traction is how plows are pulled, this is catastrophic. When people think about climate change they, often think only about the impact that affects Western industrial society. In Africa the changing climate is effecting real changes to people’s lives. They live much closer to disaster. When global food prices doubled last year people in my Utah neighborhood where complaining, but as far as I remember none of my neighbors starved to death. When I was in Ethiopia a news report from a remote village reported that several children had starved to death because people could not afford food (you’ll remember last year corn and rice prices doubled in the course of about a month). Could not afford food. Think about that. This is why Climate Change is an ethical matter, not just a matter of fact (although as far as climatologists are concerned the case of human caused climate change has been made). If there is a chance we can do something, we ethically are bound, to do so. People are dying over it. It’s not just a matter of higher gas prices.
Back to tsetse flies.
How do you get rid of them?
One way is to trap them. These targets (the blue thing in the distance) have a pesticide to kill the fly and a cattle urine bottle to bring them in. No, they don’t look much like cattle, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and tsetse flies love these blue squres:
Another way is to put pesticide on the cattle directly. The day we were there over 2000 head of cattle were treated:
And still another way is to raise thousands of flies in a fly factory (this one is located outside of Addis Ababa) and sterilize the males and release them into an area. Females only mate one or two times and if they have mated with these sterile males that have had their sperm nuked by radiation then they don’t have offspring. There is what the inside of a fly factory looks like:
(And next time you hear about “Pork barrel” spending on the sex lives of flies, look a little closer. Such research was necessary to produce this sterile fly technology and has not only helped tsetse fly, but has saved the California fruit industry. Really.)
So this is what I do. I’m building mathematical and computer models to help suss out how to best approach combining these practices into a coherent strategy for fighting this fly. “Using real math to make the world a better place.”
This last month I travelled to Senegal to assist in their efforts to control tsetse fly. Senegal has some of the same challenges with climate change, as well an additional change. Animal traction is still used to prepare the soil (I’ve never once seen a tractor in the regions I work in Africa), but the desert is creeping into larger and larger areas of Africa. The ‘sub’ is getting smaller in Sub-Saharan Africa as the ‘Saharan’ part gets bigger. It’s getting drier every year.
But the fight goes on. Here I directly engage with the beast. That’s a real tsetse fly. I didn’t let it bite me:
Here the research team sets up monitoring traps:
We catch some:
So that’s what your intrepid blogger does in his spare time. And that is why I care about evolution and climate change. I see it affecting people. I see it happen in my work. I use evolution constantly (Note here, because I can see it coming: Creationists have glommed onto a funny concept. There is a heuristic used by evolutionary thinkers made between micro and macro evolution. This is used only to make timescales of interest distinctions, not biological ones. Creationists will sometime claim to allow micro, but not macro evolution, which to a biologist’s ear sounds a bit like, ‘I believe in inches, but not miles.’ Macro is just micro over a long time. Once you start thinking of species as strings of DNA rather than fixed species the distinction gets silly).
Now lastly, one aspect of international research is that you get to see all kinds of interesting species, like this slipper lobster,
and then eat them: