Maggots cooperate to form living fountains to devour food at speedy rates
It is equal parts mesmerising and revolting, but any way you look at it, a mass maggot feeding is science in action.
- Researchers wanted to understand how maggots consume food so quickly
- They discovered swarms form living “fountains” that allow many maggots to access the food
- Larvae can be used to reduce kitchen waste and have the potential to bolster the meat industry
Vision of a pizza being demolished in two hours by maggots was part of a study that could one day have big implications for the planet’s waste disposal and food security issues.
Maggots often out-eat other scavengers, picking the bones of a carcass clean and devouring rotting fruit.
Fly larvae do not seem to have insatiable appetites, typically eating in bursts of five to eight minutes before taking a break for about 10 minutes.
In an average swarm, about 30 per cent of them appear uninterested in eating all together, and when a piece of food has a small surface area, only a few maggots can get their tiny beak-like mouths to it.
And yet, a swarm of maggots can quickly demolish almost anything put in front of them.
So scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States wanted to find out how larvae feast so effectively, looking at the mechanics of the squirming mass.
A living structure
Researchers set up tubs of black solider fly larvae, dropping in food under the gaze of video cameras.
Sped-up footage of the feeding frenzy revealed they form what scientists call a “fountain of larvae”, a moving, feasting structure that ensures more maggot mouths are fed.
As a mass, they pump individuals inwards and upwards in a clockwise motion reminiscent of a garden water feature.
The maggots used in the study look similar to New World screwworm larvae. (US Agriculture Department: John Kucharski)
This keeps the feeding line moving, meaning full maggots are not hogging access to the food for long.
“Larvae crawl towards the food from below, feed and then are expelled on the top layer,” researchers said in a study published by The Royal Society earlier this month.
“This self-propagating flow pushes away potential roadblocks, thereby increasing eating rate.”
This fountain means they can eat something small, such as an orange wedge, rather quickly, and when the surface area of the food increases, more maggot beaks can assess the food.
This means that a whole pizza can be consumed in the space of two hours.
No divas within the swarm
The maggots’ anatomical features may allow for easy squirming, but it is their egalitarian, intimate nature that helps keep the flow moving.
Other animals typically do not scramble on top of each other to access food, but researchers pointed out that maggots do not seem to mind the scrum.
“Fish in schools avoid touching each other, while larvae touch one another constantly, and in fact do not like to be isolated,” they said.
“The feeding behaviour of other animals is affected by their social hierarchy, while larvae do not have complex social dynamics.
“Thus, fly larvae may be unique among scavengers in their group feeding abilities.”
How can maggot fountains save humanity?
Maggots are often cursed for ruining crops, but they could benefit the meat industry. (ABC News: Sally Lloyd)
The study pointed out that fly larvae act as tiny waste disposal units, with none of the negative environmental side effects associated with other methods such as burning.
“Raising black soldier fly larvae is one promising method to deal with this waste,” the researchers said.
“Larva farmers raise thousands of larvae together in bins and feed them food waste.”
But rather than allowing the well-fed larvae blossom to adulthood, their lifecycles are cut short before they morph into an army of flies.
“The larvae are used as a sustainable feed source for chickens, fish and other livestock animals,” researchers note.