Tag Archives: scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis)

Southern similarities

The ongoing drought has significantly curtailed wildlife activity—well, curtailed wildlife numbers in point of fact.  It’s been rather sad, what with an obvious dearth of critters being so obvious no matter what you’re looking for.  Yet despite what I’d call a cataclysmic fall-off of insect numbers, there have been some around, and I don’t just mean the usual suspects (heck, even the usual suspects have been difficult to find, if not impossible).

Take this female ichneumon wasp (Compsocryptus sp.) for example:

A female ichneumon wasp (Compsocryptus sp.) perched on a leaf (2009_07_26_028013)

I know.  I know.  You can scarcely take your eyes off her stinger.  “It’s so long!” you scream as you run away.  “It’s huge!” you shout as you flee in the other direction.  “Eek!  Don’t let it touch me!” you holler from somewhere beyond the next hill, where in fact you’re still running.

But don’t be silly.  She’s harmless.  Her ovipositor is large, yes, but she’s really harmless.

Well, OK, keep running and screaming if you want, don’t bother me none.

At first I felt certain I’d seen this species before.  In fact, I was convinced I’d even posted photos of it before.  But I couldn’t find anything.

When I finally identified it, a species from the genus Compsocryptus, the name was so unfamiliar that I suddenly felt I probably hadn’t seen this southern species before, though ichneumon wasps (family Ichneumonidae) are so numerous that they arguably constitute the largest animal family with somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 species worldwide, and at least 8,000 species of them in North America, so it’s easy to have seen one species and to mistake it for 10 other species when you see them, not to mention mistaking them for other types of wasps they sometimes mimic.  Still, this one seems new to me, so we’ll say it is (although I don’t know the exact species, a common problem with ichneumon wasps since so many species are undescribed).

One thing I found interesting about her before she flew away (something she did right after I snapped the first photo, but oh well…) is the color pattern on her wings.  It seemed terribly familiar to me, which perhaps caused my initial confusion about whether I’d seen this species before or not.

Then it hit me: Of course she looked familiar!  Her colors and pattern are strikingly similar to another southern species, the scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis):

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032492_comp)

Sure, there are obvious differences, but a quick glance would easily let someone assume either species was in fact the other.  And I’m quite familiar with the scorpionfly (see this post for more on that species).  I think my first thought, that I should know what the wasp species is, actually came from having the scorpionfly floating in the back of my head and aligning the physical similarities without knowing it.

So despite the ongoing drought, a killer drought that really put the brakes on wildlife activity, and despite the historic heat this summer that pretty much put the brakes on everything, I’m happy knowing at least a few new critters have wandered across my path.

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.