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Sneaky Botflies and Clever Reindeer

Botflies are parasites that deposit larvae inside the noses of their hosts, including reindeer. To adapt, the deer learn elaborate behaviors to avoid the flies.

Reindeer

Photo: Tom Olliver (flickr)

Reindeer like this one in Iceland protect themselves from botflies using elaborate learned behaviors.

Have you ever heard of reindeer botflies, or reindeer nose bots? Reindeer and other large mammals are often plagued by botflies.

Botflies are parasites that deposit larvae inside the noses of their hosts. The larvae burrow into the flesh of their nasal passages, causing pain, breathing trouble, and other serious problems.

Deer Defenses

In order to adapt, the deer learn elaborate behaviors to avoid the flies. When experienced deer see or hear a botfly, they’ll sneeze to try to blow the fly away. Then they’ll thrust their heads down to press their noses into the snow or a clump of grass, looking cautiously around to be sure the fly is gone before raising their heads.

But the flies have evolved sneakier and sneakier ways to get at their hosts. Two different species of botfly have evolved opposite attack strategies.

The Stealth

One species uses stealth. These flies are able to fly and hover silently. They approach deer slowly from behind, staying low to the ground. Then they position themselves just below the deer’s nose.

From this “blind-spot” in front of the deer, a fly can dart up and squirt a batch of larvae into the deer’s nostril. Other botflies exploit the deer’s natural curiosity. These flies buzz conspicuously and land on a deer’s hindquarters.

When the deer turns to investigate the fly, it has to stretch its neck out awkwardly. Deer in this position find it hard to evade a fly when it nips in to deposit larvae; they can’t move their noses quickly enough.

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