Tuesday, August 13, 2013

KINGS OF THE INSECT JUNGLE


Many insects are predators on other insects. Dragonflies and damselflies (order Odonata) come to mind immediately, as all of them eat smaller insects and spiders. But put them up against robber flies (order Diptera, family Asilidae), and they have not only met their match but been bested with ease.

Robber flies eat dragonflies and damselflies regularly, but there are almost no records of odonates turning the tables. One type of predator is clearly superior to the other. I have seen robber flies take insects from most orders, including their own. Size is no limit, as an inch-long robber fly can latch onto a flying dragonfly three times its size and bring it down to the ground instantly with a paralyzing bite. Presumably if the fly was captured, it could do the same thing to its captor.


The two wings of a robber fly are narrow but strong, and they propel their owner through the air with an audible—sometimes impressively loud—buzz. Their flights are usually short, and when you hear that buzz you can often find its source resting on a branch, rock or the ground. They usually perch right out in the open, again like a dragonfly, where they can see potential prey. They have relatively large, forward-pointing eyes as befits a predator.

The thick, tubular proboscis injects venom that is both proteolytic and neurotoxic. The neurotoxin paralyzes the prey almost immediately, and the proteolytic enzymes digest the innards into a liquid soup that the fly sucks out. The proboscis is strong and sharp enough to penetrate the hard cuticle of a beetle.

Many insects are poisonous and distasteful and brightly colored to advertise their unpalatibility. This adaptation must be against birds, because robber flies freely feed on such insects, as do dragonflies.

Robber flies are very bristly. The legs have long, sharp spines to hold onto the prey, much as in dragonflies. The face has a dense coat of bristles, called the mystax, presumably to protect it from the legs and mandibles of struggling prey (but it’s a sure thing that they don’t struggle for long).

Many robber flies are sleek and pointed at the rear, the jet fighters of the insect world. Others are fat and fuzzy, very effective mimics of bumble bees but just as effective as predators. They have been called aggressive mimics, mimicking their favored prey species to get close enough to make a kill.

Fly larvae are legless and look like maggots, and robber flies are no exception. Slim and pointed at both ends, at least some of them feed on the larvae of other insects, usually in rotting organic material such as logs and dead trees or in the soil. Surprisingly little is known about the larval life of this group, however.

With over 7000 species in the world, robber flies are diverse on all the continents. They are relatively uncommon in the wet western lowlands of the Pacific Northwest, just as many groups of insects are less common in our cool, cloudy summer climate. Head across the Cascades to see a lot more of them in the dry, open areas that they prefer.

Robber flies are easily observable, as they are fairly tame, but capturing one in an insect net and looking at it closely allows you to appreciate its adaptations even more. Be cautious, however, as their bite can be painful. I know enough about their adaptations that I have never allowed one to bite me!

Dennis Paulson

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