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Can flies carry red tide? Research still ongoing, but it'd be rare, scientist says

Red tide toxins can cause people to have respiratory and skin irritation when in close contact.

ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. — A professor at the University of Florida is studying dead fish carcasses to answer the question, "What role do filth flies play in the aftermath of mass-kill events caused by red tides?" 

Remains of dead fish and sea life, killed by the red tide, have littered the beaches in recent weeks, attracting flies. 

These flies are known for spreading pathogens, according to Ted Burgess, assistant professor of entomology with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

He says his group wants to identify the types of flies found and see if they are actually capable of carrying these toxins, which is what causes the widespread death to fish along the coast.

“We are interested to know if these flies can also carry brevetoxins [red tide toxins]," Burgess said in a statement. "If so, it would be a rare case of an insect carrying an environmentally derived neurotoxin.”

Tampa Bay's shore became a natural laboratory for Burgess' research project.

Burgess and his research team collected fish carcasses and flies from beaches around St. Pete, which they use for testing. 

Fish, horseshoe crabs and birds, which also have fallen victim to red tide, are sensitive to the species of algae that cause a red tide. These flies use the dead tissues of poisoned animals to develop.

As of right now, it is too early to know if the flies from this year's red tide in the Tampa Bay region can spread red tide toxins, Burgess said.

“Brevetoxins do cause some adverse effects on people’s health, including respiratory and skin irritation when in close contact with the toxin,” he said. “We are a long way from being able to tell if flies can carry enough brevetoxin inland from red tide-affected beaches that they begin affecting humans.”

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