Maggots: Definition & Life Cycle

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

Whenever something is rotting, maggots are there. They are the precursors to the fly. In this lesson, we will learn what maggots are and go through the stages of their life cycle.

Gettysburg, 1863

The Civil War battle of Gettysburg saw butchery on a scale that is shocking to this day. Thousands of bodies, both human and animal, were left on the battlefield for extended periods of time before they were buried in shallow graves. Even after being buried, heavy rainfall, and wild animals unearthed the corpses. The amount of flies in the area has been described as moving in clouds. Flies start their lives as maggots. Let's investigate maggots and their part of the fly life cycle.


Maggots are the precursors to flies known as larva. They are whitish-transparent, worm-like organisms that are, on average, about 3 to 9 mm (≈ 1/10 to just over 1/3 inch) in length. During the three larval stages, they devour rotting organic material such dead animals and animal waste. The body of the maggot is tapered, and the end where their mouth is located is smaller than the rest of their body. Maggots are part of the life cycle of the Musca domestica or common house fly.

The mouth of the maggot is at the tapered end

Life Cycle

The life cycle starts with a fly landing on rotting flesh and laying hundreds of eggs. Maggots hatch from these eggs and start consuming the rotting material. In the aftermath of the Gettysburg battle, maggots were not only seen eating corpses, they covered the wounded, squirming as they ate the putrid flesh in their wounds.

White tube-shaped objects are maggots eating a dead opossum

Medical knowledge was primitive during this time in history, and bacteria had not yet been discovered. Rot spreads from wound to healthy tissue, which will kill the patient if not controlled. The medical personnel would use chloroform to kill the maggots invading the wounded. Sometimes they would use scalpels to cut away the dead flesh or pour nitric acid on it to dissolve it. It wasn't long before the medical personnel realized the maggots were beneficial. The maggots were on the job full-time removing the dangerous rotting flesh of the wounded. The maggots became an ally in the fight against infection and death by actually supporting the growth of new tissue. In fact, medical-grade maggots are used in modern medicine to treat wounds that are having trouble healing.

Life cycle

Maggot Birth

It takes about a day from when the egg is laid before the maggot emerges. During this time in the egg, it gets nourishment from liquids generated by the rotting flesh. After it hatches, it feeds for around 3 to 5 days. During this time, it eats a lot and grows fast and molts three times, which is when it leaves one shell structure and grows another. At Gettysburg, they were described as being as large as the size of a thumb.

Pre-Pupa to Pupa

At the end of the larval stage, the maggot will leave its feeding site and usually move into the ground. This is sort of a hibernation stage, and it doesn't eat anymore. It will stay in this hibernation stage for about 4 days before it actually turns into a pupa, which is where its transformation into a fly occurs.

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