5. Drosophila harrisburgii -
The Giant Fruit-Fly
Who forgot it? Surely nobody! Because the incident is just thirty years ago, although just reported local and known in scientists’ circles. Meant is the appearance of a huge number of giant fruit flies in the Susquehanna River region in 1987.
I found this story by accident, when for researches on a sports story I checked local newspaper editions of summer 1987 in an archive in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As an odd headline of the local edition on Friday, June 5th, 1987, there was a report about a „Nuisance by Giant Fruit Flies.”
The news said that for some days – first in Valley Green, later until down to Shenks Ferry – along the Susquehanna River more and more frequently flies of the species Drosophila melanogaster showed up. Commonly known as fruit fly. Normally already annoying, when sitting in large numbers on fruits and vegetables, this variation was even more intrusive. Because instead of the usual size of a tenth of an inch, they were three or even four times as large. And whether mango, pineapple, papaw, or lemon – whatever was on the plates along the river, the insects sat on it.
Thanks to diligent students of the Mendel-High School in York Haven, according to the local edition of the „Susquehanna-Sentinel”, several thousand specimens could be caught on a field day and sent to the biological institute of the Hargard College in Leamington in Ontario.
I also went through the two following editions of the Harrisburg edition of the „Susquehanna-Sentinel”, but didn’t find any further report. So it can be assumed, that the infestation by the flies had gone. What was not gone of course was my curiosity. Because somewhere in the deep parts of my memory I was a dark shadow, that I had seen a similar report or at least a short notice somewhere else. I just couldn’t remember where. So some painstaking work was necessary, which finally lead to success: I found the giant fruit flies three more times mentioned in the „Susquehanna-Sentinel.” Not as explicit as in the Harrisburg edition, but at least it was reported about.
On July 20th, 1987, the local edition of the „Susquehanna-Sentinel” published a picture of the Giant Fruit-Fly. Sitting on a tulip it shows its real size
The next time it was mentioned was in the local edition of Lancaster on Saturday, June 20th, 1987, on page two: „Grandma annoyed by Flies”, was the sensational headline in a small notice, even decorated by a photo. The notice said that nut just Granny Gnat in Mountville is presently annoyed by much too large fruit flies, but the whole region along the river and up to Lancaster.
I got a confirmation for this case by a friend in the archive of the Army, where some assorted files of the Harrisburg region are stored since 1980. For a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon my friend started during his leisure time to search the old files of the „Marie-Curie-Barracks” near Harrisburg. And he had success too: Filed under Thursday, June 18th, 1987, in the records of the medical and veterinary department, was the remark we looked for: Due to a plague of giant fruit flies within the kitchen buildings chemicals had to be used to get rid of them.
Monday edition of the „Susquehanna-Sentinel,” local issue Havre de Grace, July 13th, 1987, page three: “Flies from Valley Green down to the Bay.” The report was pretty brief: One week ago around the town of Valley Green an invasion of huge fruit flies had begun, which now occupies the lands north of Baltimore.
So, why not use the military connections for a research once again: In the records of the Navy Base Perryville, like in the Curie Barracks, the use of chemicals against flies in the kitchen departments is noted. Date: July 10th. And a friend from the Air Force, for another bottle of Bourbon, found a similar note at the „Juri-Gagarin-Airbase” in Plumpton Park. Date here: July 8th.
Now to the last report in the „Susquehanna-Sentinel.” Again nearly the same content as in the edition from Havre de Garce, but this time the issue of Abingdon and the flies spread down the bay. Date of publication: Saturday, July 25th. And another confirmation of chemicals in the kitchens of barracks at Clayton on July 22nd.
What to think about all these reports? A request at Professor Dr. Hummer at CUNT (Cambridge-University-Nuclear-Team) regarding the possibilities of mutations of Drosophila melanogaster brought an surprising, but basically not astonishing answer: „What a question,” he said at the telephone, “the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island, after the incident on 1979, could of course be responsible for mutations.”
His tip: an interview with one of the most acclaimed specialists on the field of research on mutations caused by radio activity, Dr. Thomas Error-Fliege of the famous Atlanta-Radioactive-Survey-Examiners (ARSE) team.
No sooner said than done and called. After three days finally I made it to get the leading authority to the phone. Mutation by radioactive leakage? His answer: „Basically possible.” But why the spreading to the South? T. Error-Fliege laughs: „Did you check the weather report in the newspapers?” No, crap.
So back in the archives of the „Susquehanna-Sentinel”, and right: In the beginning winds from the North, carrying the flies from Harrisburg down to the bay. Then the wind came from the East and carried the slow flying flies, the giant ones even flying slower, towards Baltimore. Now a sudden change of the weather. The wind became strong and turned towards North. The end for the giant fruit flies, which were blown all down over the Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean.
But what happened to the specimens, collected by the students of the Mendel-High School in York haven, which were sent to the Hargard College? A view into the dusty files of the zoological institute gives the answer to the question: „Examined insects were classified as new species. Name: Drosophila harrisburgii. Further appearance not known. Signed: A scientific collaborator of the institute, Thursday, January 14th, 1988”. End of the case.
What was really behind Drosophila harrisburgii, the „Harrisburg Fruit Fly”? Nobody knows exactly. Also the real background for their existence is still in the dark. Was it really the incident at the nuclear plant on March 28th, 1979, which caused the mutations of the flies – or have the causes been absolutely natural, and due to Darwin’s theories, the animals got extinct because they were too big and by this not able to survive? It will remain a mystery forever.
© Mig Phönix 2008