Readers’ wildlife photos: flies and spiders

WEIT regular Mark Sturtevant has sent us a veritable seminar on flies and spiders. He writes:

Stilt legged fly (possibly Rainieria antennaepes). I encountered this little character strutting back and forth on some forest leaves, persistently waving its whitened front legs before it. This fly was so intent on its display that it would not be distracted from it, even after I bumped its leaf trying to hunker down on the forest floor to take pictures. It was for this reason that I thought at first that this was a male ‘strutting its stuff’ to entice a female, but I have since learned that it was likely mimicking various species of ichneumon wasps which wave whitened antennae. An example of the kind of model is here: http://bugguide.net/node/view/997201/bgimage

1StiltLeggedFly

In point of fact, this fly was a female (I could tell from other pictures), and both males and females spend a lot of time marching around waving their tiny white feet to pretend they are wasps. But sex is never far from the minds of an insect, and this female was possibly also advertising for a conjugal visit from a male. In the animal kingdom it is generally the males that have to dance and carry on for mating because females choose their males and males must vie to be chosen. This makes sense because usually it is the females that bear the higher reproductive costs. But in some animals the costs are more balanced or even reversed. In stilt legged flies both sexes have high reproductive costs, and so here we have a female who might be trying to get the attention of any passing males. This is all explained in the following short video about a tropical species of stilt legged fly, and the readers can sort out from this why mating is costly for males (it is kind of gross). I do recommend that people watch this video. Although it does suffer a bit from video quality, it is exceptionally charming in how it patiently describes the rather unusual (and kind of funny) sex lives of these little insects.

I mentioned in my previous posting that robber flies have a special talent. It is said that the preying mantis is the only insect that can turn its head, but of course that is not true. Other insects can turn their head a little, but I learned this summer that robber flies can turn their heads a lot. These pictures were taken with the wrong kind of lens, but they do show a robber fly (Laphria grossa) looking forward and then up. It also looked several times over its left and right shoulders (!) but I failed to get pictures of that. Robber flies are fearsome predators with excellent vision, and so I think that their ability to swivel their heads around like this makes it even more terrifying to be an insect.

2RobberFlyLooking

The tiny basilica spider (Mecynogea lemniscata) is about the size of a fruit fly. It builds a dome web close to the ground, and they are very common around here. The first picture shows a female and slightly smaller male.

3BasilicaSpiders

The next pictures show them mating. Male spiders store their sperm in their pedipalps, which are the swollen ‘boxing gloves’ on the head. The two loaded pedipalps are used to separately enseminate the two reproductive openings on the female, located near the base of her abomen. Here you can see the very moment when the male is first inflating the left pedipalp to pump in sperm, and then the right pedipalp is inflated to do the same.

4BasilicaMating

14 Comments

  1. Dominic
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    VERY nice – & such a pretty fly.

    But it raises the point, what sort of sexual selection is it when it is just a desperate attempt to flag down the nearest one of the opposite sex? No fussiness? Basically the only element of selection is advertising – s/he who waves highest & longest is the one who succeeds.

    • Dominic
      Posted July 17, 2015 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Signal selection. Which reminds me, I went to a talk by Amots Zahavi a few years ago, mentioned it to Steve Jones when I was getting him to sign a book after a talk not long after, & he said he had done graduate work with Zahavi.

  2. GBJames
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post, Mark! I especially enjoyed the video.

  3. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    If you double click on the spiders mating you can see that the pedipalps swell, showing amber colored membranes.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Very cool capture!

  4. Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I think the spiders might be Neriene radiata, a linyphiid.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I think you are right!

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you Mark! I remember trying to grok the peculiar movement styles of some insects as a child, and I may have learned about wasp mimics and then forgotten.

    I also seem to have learned some of the source for the peculiar spell casting style of Harry Potter’s world in the video… (‘The [inaudible but Harry Potterish spell style] fly…’)

  6. Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    As one of the few people who studies stilt-legged flies, I’m glad to see them finding some fanfare! Great piece & photos by Mark (and he’s right, that is Rainieria antennaepes in the first photo).

    I just wanted to mention that the video he linked to is a phenomenal piece of work by Patricia Ortiz, an Ecuadorian naturalist/entomologist who worked primarily in Costa Rica. Tragically, Ortiz was killed while doing fieldwork in Costa Rica a few years ago. In 2013, Dr Jack Longino dedicated a new species of ant to her, Eurhopalothrix ortizae as a lasting tribute to her work and impact on natural history research in Costa Rica.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Very sad to learn about her. But I really liked her amazingly intricate work shown in the video, with wonderful attention paid to the little details.

    • Dominic
      Posted July 17, 2015 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      She is on Richard Coniff’s ‘Wall of the Dead’ which recalls naturalists who have died in the field
      https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/the-wall-of-the-dead/

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 17, 2015 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Wow, thank you for that fascinating (if sobering) link!

  7. Mark R.
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Excellent photos and commentary Mark. Thanks…it’s nice to have good reading while waiting in the airport.

  8. rickflick
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    If only I had known about that regurgitation trick when I was in high school.
    Fascinating creatures.


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