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Curious Collections: Playing Host to a Botfly

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A specimen stored in collections in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology: an adult botfly run through with a straight pin posed atop its pupal case.
The botfly is now stored in collections of the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Photo: © AMNH

Hiking out of a field site in French Guiana in August 1999, Curator Rob Voss was unaware that freeloaders had hitched a ride. Back home in New York, he felt pinpricks on his back and found two red spots. They were getting wider, so he sought help from a dermatologist.

“The doctor said I had myiasis – a fly larva burrowing in my skin. He quickly shot me full of lidocaine, and pulled a chunk out of my back,” says Voss. “He even kept the maggot! He wanted to remove the second specimen, but I decided to bring it to term.”

So hatched a unique plan to add 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—when the mosquito punctures their skin.

Over two months, Voss bonded with the botfly. “It’s the closest 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 the fly had been,” he says. “But I have a scar from where the first one was removed.”

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