The common fruit fly (drosophila melanogaster) has a long and remarkable history in science. The drosophila family was first described by Swedish botanist and entomologist Carl Frederick Fallen in 1815. The name drosophila comes from the Ancient Greek words δρόσος (drosos) meaning dew, and φίλος (philos, with a Latinate feminine ending as phila) meaning lover. The name melanogaster also comes from Ancient Greek, from the words μέλας (melas) meaning dark-coloured, and γαστήρ (gaster) meaning belly. The species melanogaster was first systematically studied and described by the self-taught German entomologist known as the father of dipterology Johann Wilhelm Meigen. Meigen was involved in a dispute with the Great taxonomist Fabricius, when Fabricius visited the self-taught Meigen and criticized his classification system of diptera. Meigen pointed out that even Fabricius deviated from his own taxonomic classification system (see post on the Polygonia for more of Fabricius’s difficulties), but it would be another 18 years before Meigen had the stature to undertake a full revision of Fabricius.
The drosophila melanogaster did not come to full fame until the 1880s when American entomologist Charles W. Woodworth chose the melanogaster for use in genetic experiments while studying at Harvard University. Not long after Thomas Hunt Morgan of Columbia University started using melangaster for heredity experiments, confirming Mendelian theories systematically over many generations. Final fascinating fact of the drosophila family: the males have some of the longest sperm in the animal kingdom, some having sperm that measure as long as two inches! (!), delivered to the female in tightly wound bunches. By comparison, the human sperm is microscopic, measuring only tenths of milimeters across.
Image of a male drosophila melanogaster courtesy Max Westby, used with permission under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.