New York Times on Drunk Fruit Flies, Wooly Bear Caterpillars, and Prof. Michael Singer

If you’re hungover as hell, you may have more in common with the average fruit fly than you think. According to a recent New York Times piece, the fruit flies species Drosophila melanogaster consumes yeast-produced alcohol and, well, gets drunk as a defense against parasites. “Drosophila melanogaster thrives on rotting fruit [because] it has evolved special enzymes that quickly detoxify alcohol,” demonstrated a recent Emory University study.

What the hell does this have to do with Wes?

Err, for one thing, Emory’s esteemed 18th president, one William M. Chace (not to be confused with this epic-stached gentleman), also served as Wesleyan’s own fourteenth president, where he reduced faculty size, taught a whole lot of James Joyce, and presided over the Mummy Incident of 1990.

For another, the Times’ coverage gives quite the shout-out to Wesleyan’s own Biology department, specifically Professor Michael Singer, known for his studies on caterpillars and, less prominently, deep appreciation for soul and funk music. Apparently Emory’s study on fruit flies bears significant comparison to Wesleyan studies self-medicating wooly bear caterpillars, which make significant use of toxic plant leaves:

“This article is exciting in several ways,” said Michael Singer, a biologist at Wesleyan University who was not involved in the study. Over the years, scientists have gathered a few examples of animals medicating themselves. Chimpanzees eat plants with antiparasitic compounds when they get intestinal worms, for example. Dr. Singer and his colleagues have shown that woolly bear caterpillars go out of their way to feed on toxic plant leaves when parasitic flies lay eggs in them.

That said, no other study—including Singer’s—suggests evidence of animals using alcohol to medicate themselves.

For more on fruit flies you can scope the New York Times article here, but for more on Wesleyan studies of wooly bear caterpillars, see this paper via PLoS ONE, on “Increased Ingestion of Plant Toxins by Parasitized Caterpillars.” Spoiler alert: the “experiments show that the ingestion of plant toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids improves the survival of parasitized caterpillars by conferring resistance against tachinid flies.”

[New York Times]