by Matthew Cobb
Another set of fascinating insect tw**ts popped up while I slept. Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) tweeted a link to this fantastic insect, photographed by J. Gállego, a Spanish photographer who specialises in the fauna and flora of Spain and North Africa:
Here’s picture of the beast head on (keep away from those mouthparts!):
Some of you may have guessed, this is a larval form of a rather beautiful insect – a Neuropterid. This includes things lacewings, owlflies and antlions, and used to be in the same group as the Megaloptera (which includes the Dobson fly we discussed the other day). Antlion larvae live in pits, into which ants fall (hence their name), which was also the inspiration for that beast in one of the episodes of Star Wars. After Morgan had tweeted this bizarre larva – why on earth does it have such a long ‘neck’? – he then tweeted this:
Here’s the picture Morgan linked to – a stupendous image by the great Piotr Naskrecki from thesmallermajority.com. You can see what he means about ‘crazy hind-wings’:
Here’s a close-up of the beast, again by Piotr Naskrecki, in which you can really see that they are duck-faced…
These things look more like Mecoptera or scorpion flies (neither scorpions nor flies, obvs). Very odd.
J. Gállego has a photo of a different species, which might be the adult of the weird larva at the top – Nemoptera bipennis:
Here’s another beautiful Nemoptera bipennis from Toni Garcia de la Cruz.
You can find many other photos of the adults on the internet, including these and a great page of loads of Neuropterid images collated by Jonathan Wojcik. There’s even a nice Youtube video:
The function of those long hindwings is unclear (though they look remarkably like the streamers seen in some birds, for which sexual selectionis a probable explanation), but Naskrecki has a different take:
The function of this unusual morphology is still not entirely known. In species with particularly enlarged hind wings their function appears to be to deter some predators by giving a false impression of the insect as much larger—and thus potentially stronger—than it really is. In species with long, thread-like wings their function may be related to the aerodynamics of the flight, and in members of the subfamily Crocinae the hind wings play a sensory function in cavernicolous habitats that these insects occupy.
I was particularly struck by this comment from Piotr:
Interestingly, because of some species’ preference of sheltered, cave-like habitats, the larvae of these insects were first discovered in tombs of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt in the early 1800′s, giving rise to a nearly mythological status of these insects.
A couple of years back I was in the back rooms of the Manchester Museum (part of the University of Manchester), where some colleagues were preparing an ancient Egyptian tombstone (I think). I was struck by a hieroglyph of an insect of some kind, which I was told was a bee, so I took a photo of it that has been sitting on my phone ever since. I wasn’t happy with the identification of the thing as a bee (it doesn’t look anything like one – look at those antennae!), but that is apparently how it is interpreted, and other inscriptions relating to honey and everything all make sense.
But looking at it now, it looks much more like a duck-faced lacewing (dig those antennae!):
The shape underneath the abdomen is apparently one of the back pair of legs, and can be seen more clearly on this inscription from Luxor:
So. Either the Ancient Egyptians didn’t know their bees from the duck-faced lacewings (it seems unlikely), or the bee symbol was adapted from an earlier symbol which was (for whatever reason) of a duck-faced lacewing. Any Egyptologists care to comment?