The scorpion and the fly

Whilst meandering about the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, I strolled along one of the old gravel roads that had become overgrown with little bluestem and Indiangrass and other native Blackland Prairie flora intent on reclaiming the area.  In some places, the trail vanished beneath a sea of growth waving vigorously in the day’s strong winds.

Fresh deer and coyote tracks marked the wet soil, deep tracks showing not so much weight but overwhelming dampness from heavy rains.  Migratory and resident birds filled the air with song and flitted about the hardwood forest bordering the old road.  The strong smell of musk forced me to detour around what could only have been a skunk hiding in the shadows.  And as the sun climbed over the trees and warmed the cool morning, insects swarmed into the light.

A red-shouldered hawk exploded from the trees nearby and made an immediate u-turn, quickly vanishing between ligneous arms heavy with falling leaves.  I held my breath momentarily, watching after the large bird, letting the chatter of cardinals and kinglets and a cacophony of avian voices cloak me in greeting.

Yet as I stood looking up, gusts of wind brushing tall-grass stems against my legs, a brief flash of color on the ground caught my attention.  Something lurked beneath the still verdant cover, something walking about in deep shadows.  So I knelt to take a closer look.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032482)

Not a real scorpion.  Not a real fly.  But reminiscent of both.  A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis).  Even in a place where flash would have been useless and little light penetrated, its distinctive colors and telltale tail made clear I was facing one of the more unique insect species to be found in Texas.

Though I wished for a better view, for better light, I chose not to disturb him lest I chase him away from his meal, the remains of a crushed grasshopper already too far gone for identification.  As I looked at his unique and unmistakable profile, a second scorpionfly scampered out from the grass.

A female scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032492)

A female.  His mate?  Or just a friend?  No matter the relationship, the two seemed more than tolerant of each other.  She never moved close to the grasshopper meal, instead walking along the edge of the gravel.  All the while, he stood guard over the dead insect.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing near a dead grasshopper (2009_10_18_032497)

My presence, camera and head stuck beneath the waving grass, seemed less than acceptable to both, yet I felt neither wanted to leave the banquet laid out before them.  Mind you, I probably would react the same way if unwelcome paparazzi sat at my dinner table while I tried to eat.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032483)

So why would I put my face in such a position when dealing with an insect as menacing as this?  That scorpion tail no doubt could deliver quite a sting.

Actually, scorpionflies are harmless.  Only males have the scorpion-like abdomen, and it’s not a stinger at all.  That happens to be his genitalia.  He holds his family jewels above his body in what resembles the typical defensive posture of scorpions.  Females lack the tail.

Kleptoparasites in that they are known to steal prey from spider webs (without getting caught in the web themselves), scorpionflies also take live prey by capturing other insects with their legs.  In addition—and obviously—they consume dead insects.  Hidden at the end of their long snout are chewing mouthparts.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) seen from above (2009_10_18_032503)

I backed away from their bower while keeping an eye on them.  Only then did the female move away from the road’s edge and toward the grasshopper.  The male, meanwhile, turned to watch her—and that put him into a position that offered me one good dorsal view between blades of grass.  Standing above him, I snapped that image before leaving them to their feast.

14 thoughts on “The scorpion and the fly”

  1. Fantastic colouring. That garnet red topped by the russet gold and black cloak, more the way I’d expect a dinosaur’s skin to be patterned than an insect’s wings. i’ve never before seen anything even close to this. Thank you.

    1. I’m with you, Clive. I was entranced by them–and I’ve seen scorpionflies before, though I’d never seen this particular species. Apparently, it’s the most distinctive due to the wing pattern and colors. And I love the comparison to something prehistoric! That very much fits.

  2. I just found your site while googling images of V. prunifolium in fruit ( I have doubts about the ID of a plant I photographed in the Catskills). What wonderful photography and…cats!

    1. Marie, thank you so much for visiting and commenting! I greatly appreciate the compliment. I’m glad you like the photos. It’s a passionate obsession of mine, as you can tell.

      BTW, I took a look at your plant photo, and I’ll leave a comment on your blog as to the ID. Hint: it is in fact blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium).

  3. Hey Jason – super cool insect! When I looked at your pictures, I couldn’t help thinking of an anteater (sp?). And there IS an ant in your first photo – possibly about to be consumed? I couldn’t make out the grasshopper remnants.

    For some reason, I am fascinated with watching animals feed. This past weekend I focused in on a grasshopper that tackled something – I thought to eat it. As I focused on the scene, I realized it was two grasshoppers getting to “know” each other – not mealtime!

    1. Hysterical, Amber! The anteater comparison came to my mind as well once I started processing the images and saw a few acrobat ants (Crematogaster sp.) nearby. But the scorpionflies never bothered the ants (in a few unused images following that first one I could see the ants marching right by the scorpionflies and heading toward the dead grasshopper). It was a funny thought, though, and the first picture made me think I’d see the ant being eaten in the next image–but not so.

      No, the grasshopper was missing a lot of the important parts (like wings and back legs) that would help with identifying it. I snapped some pictures of it just in case, but ultimately I gave up because there wasn’t enough left.

      I love the grasshoppers getting to know each other! Too funny.

    1. I’m glad you like these little critters, Mature4evr! (Though they’re over an inch in length [about 3 cm], so ‘little’ might not apply.) I do admit the vast amount of nature in this state helps overcome its other issues (which are many).

  4. Now if I were a betting person, I’d bet what we have here is the offspring of a misguided scorpion and very determined anteater.

    Seriously, these are awesome photos of something I never knew existed before. How in the world did you spot them?

    1. LOL! That’s too funny, Mom. But it does look like a weird combination, doesn’t it?

      The scorpionflies were large enough and colorful enough to be pretty obvious even moving around under the tall grass. Besides, you know me: always looking for the less obvious goodies.

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