Curious Collections: A Borne Botfly

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The botfly is now stored in collections of the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Photo: © AMNH

As he hiked out of his field site in French Guiana in August 1999, Curator Rob Voss was heedlessly unaware of freeloaders hitched to his back. But soon after returning to New York, he felt pinpricks and noticed that two red spots were widening. He sought help.

“The dermatologist promptly said that I had myiasis, a fly larva burrowing in my skin, rapidly shot me full of lidocaine, and pulled out a chunk of my back,” says Voss. “He even kept the maggot! I decided to bring the second one to term.”

So hatched a unique plan to add a specimen of Dermatobia hominis to the Museum’s collection. Restricted to the American tropics, adult botflies hijack a mosquito mid-air to carry their eggs for them. The larvae enter their hosts—typically monkeys or kinkajous rather than humans—through the mosquito’s puncture.

Over two months, Voss bonded with the botfly. “It’s the closest that I’ve come to gestating,” he says. “It has a daily rhythm. There were moments of excruciating pain, especially at 2 or 3 in the morning when it seemed to be moving.”

By mid-October, the pain ceased. His wife, Curator Nancy Simmons, and their son Nick could see the pinky-sized larva, ringed with hooks, hanging out near the surface of his back. Fortuitously, they also saw the maggot heave itself out of the hole before collecting it in a jar and placing it next to a warm flue until, just after Thanksgiving, an adult fly emerged.

In the wild, botfly larvae burrow into warm soil before pupating and emerging as a fly. Voss donated the fly and its pupal case to the collections of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, where the “pristine specimen” is stored with other flies of the Cuterebridae. The wound healed rapidly. “Within a few weeks, you could not see where it had been,” he says. “But I have a scar from the first one.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.