Sunday, October 21, 2012

Scorpionfly in a beautiful landscape

I found myself in one of my favorites places yesterday, Shawnee State Forest in southernmost Ohio. Some of us were down there for a meeting in the morning, but we managed an afternoon of exploration. The scenery is stunning right now, with colorful fall foliage painting the landscape in vivid primary colors.

A fall trip to Shawnee would not be complete without a climb to the top of the Copperhead Lookout fire tower. You can't access the cabin at the top, but it is possible to scale the steps to the next level down, and that's high enough to get one's head above the leaves.

Shawnee's picturesque landscape goes on and on - hard to believe that this is Ohio.

Many woody players contribute to autumn's palette of colors, including Black Maples, which turn a nice lemony-yellow splashed with a tinge of burnt-orange.

We were after some rare plants, and whatever else we could find, and our crew did indeed stumble into some interesting flora and fauna. One of the coolest creatures was this bizarre insect, which is a Scorpionfly in the genus Panorpa. I don't know the species - there are over 50 taxa in this genus, and I've yet to see a Field Guide to the Scorpionflies of the Eastern United States.

While identifying one of these oddities to species may present challenges, they're easily enough recognized as a scorpionfly. Most of the insect is colored a light amber hue, and the wings are rather boldly marked with black dashes. A closer look reveals a disproportionately long snout, or proboscis. It's as if an anteater's head was welded to a wasp.

It's the tail that is especially noteworthy, though, and is responsible for the insect's strange name. The tip of the abdomen and the terminal claspers are jointed, and held curled up over the back, exactly like a scorpion. The overall effect is quite cool, but as these animals are not especially large - about yellowjacket-sized - you have to get in close to appreciate the strange architecture.

Scorpionflies are not true flies, but belong to their own Order along with hangingflies and some others - the Mecoptera. They're the six-legged equivalent of vultures, making a living by scavenging on the remains of small animal life. As grotesque as this lifestyle may seem, the male scorpionfly is actually quite the charmer. He uses tasty bits of dead animal matter as an offering to prospective mates, thus wooing his partner with carrion. Watch for these fascinating insects perched atop leaves in the shrub layer of woodlands, or at rest on ground level leaf litter.

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1 comment:

Kirk said...

Thanks! I've been waiting for a post on scorpionflies since I found my first ones last spring. When I saw my first one, I just bet they were called scorpionflies and typed it in an image search engine. And lo and behold, what I had seen popped up. And then I came here and there was nothing :(