Sunday, 14 April 2013


"Hey! Look at that tiny owl! Who knew owls could be so small? David Attenborough never said anything about this! Maybe it's a new species? Of owl."

"Oh. Actually, I think it might be some kind of insect. I will call it 'Owlfly'. Because it looks just like an owl. EXACTLY like an owl. Amazing!"

That probably never happened. But what about their young? Do they look more like owls?

Image: jeans_Photos
Larval Owlfly
Aaaah! Now that's more like it! Sure, it's not exactly the spitting image of an owl...

But it sure captures the atmosphere within the nest.

Alright, let's be honest: they do get their name from the adult.

Mostly eyes
We're looking at Owlflies, some 430 net-winged insects in the Ascalaphidae family and usually around 5 cm (2 in) long. Apparently, they get their name from the gigantic eyes that cover most of their head. No beak, no talons, no feathers (although it looks like they have a face full of downy fluff)... just big eyes. Big eyes like an owl. Big-eyefly!

Image: kadavoor
And of course, they have the ridiculously complicated wings that any net-winged insect has. They look a lot like a dragonfly (I guess we can't call them Dragonflyfly, can we?), but real dragonflies have teensy antennae that you can barely see at all. Owlflies have a huge, long things. With knobs on.

Image: Bernd Haynold
Some Owlflies seem to purposely mimic dragonflies. They're active during the day and hold out their wings in dragonfly fashion when at rest. This could be a good idea since dragonflies are powerful predators that most insects would want to avoid. Owlflies are predators too, they even hunt flying insects on the wing like a dragonfly, but they lack the dragon's raw strength and typically seek out prey that can't fight back.

Image: John Tann
Others spend much of the day with their butt in the air.

Image: Dan Irizarry
They're pretending to be a twig! These Owlflies tend to be crepuscular. That is, they're active during the twilight hours of sunrise and sunset. A bit like an owl, actually.

Erm... young Owlflies are a little different.

Image: jeans_Photos
They're... grotesque! They have eyes - lots of eyes - but they're tiny little things. They much prefer to devote their face-space to giant sickle-jaws of doom. And they're not too concerned about whether their prey can fight back or not. They probably find the struggle unto death quite fun. They look the type, anyway.

Video: t1043dow

So there's our young Owlfly, brandishing her jaws like a dual-wielding Grim Reaper. A poisonous, dual-wielding Grim Reaper, since those mighty tusks also inject a paralyzing venom so they can suck out the insides in peace, once all that squirming and struggling has grown tedious. And then you have to add the guerilla tactics, since many of these beasts are remarkably well camouflaged ambushers.

Image: smccann
In short: we have a "situation" on our hands.

Image: jeans_Photos
Fairly normal legs
And if it all looks rather familiar, then yes! This is EXACTLY what you dreamed about last night when you wet the bed for the first time in 25 years!

It also looks a lot like an Antlion and indeed, Antlions and Owlflies belong to the same superfamily. They're sisters! Sisters in arms big, massive, poisonous tusks!

They're not twins, though, so there are some differences.

Firstly, Owlflies lay their eggs on twigs and vegetation rather than sand. A good idea, since youngsters spend their time on trees and plants or in the undergrowth. They don't build those sand pit traps so many Antlions do, they just hang around waiting for prey to come close enough to pounce on.

This is probably why their legs look quite normal, compared to the odd menagerie Antlions use for burrowing and flicking sand.

Another curious distinction are the peculiar bits sticking out all around the edge of the Owlfly larva's body, like one of those fringe skirts in full swing. They have these things right from the egg, and they're all hairy and weird. I wonder if they help break up their outline to improve camouflage? Maybe they help keep their whole body flush with the trees or rocks they're standing on?

Image: smccann
Amazing camouflage.
Killed a roach about as big as itself.
Ants don't even know what's going on.
It is remarkable just how flat they can be! It looks like you'd have to peel them off!

However, peel themselves away all little larvae must. They will eventually create a silk cocoon for themselves hidden away in leaf litter.

Image: Sebaho
Soon enough, the adult emerges to embark on their new, rather less savage life. It's interesting that they look a lot like dragonflies while adult Antlions look a lot like damselflies. Then again, they are sisters.


TexWisGirl said...

the adults are SO cool! love their antennae! don't like their young, though. sorry!

ElBandito said...

Those young owlflies look so cute! Great article as always!

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

@TexWisGirl: They're classic cartoon antennae, the kind of thing you almost never see in real life!

@ElBandito: Thank you! And I'm glad SOMEONE finds the larvae cute!

Crunchy said...

Owlfly? Yes, and fishswim!

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

Haha! I can always rely on you to be at least as cheesy as me!

WeiWen said...

omg, this article is so funny!thank you for all the amazing articles! every single article rocks! :)

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

Thank you for saying so! I'm glad you enjoy it!

WeiWen said...

you're welcome! :) where do you get the time to write all tis stuff? there are so many articles, and every article has so much info!!! anyway, thanks for all of them(i know i'm repeating but i just have to say that)you helped me a lot with my project, so thanks!!!!!!!!

Bruce Towers said...

Enjoyed your article entirely. Always have been a fan of owlflies (adults and horrific larvae).. Wonderful information and images. Love your insight and humor too. Thank you for sharing this!

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

Thanks a lot! Glad you enjoyed it.

Gurunath Prabhudesai said...

Thanks for the article Joseph. Your narrating style is great.

BTW, I think I saw one of these a few days back, but my friend said it's an Ant-Lion. I have clicked a photo and here's a link to it -

Is it indeed an Owlfly or an Ant-Lion?

Thanks in anticipation for your response.

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

Hi, Gurunath! Glad you enjoyed the article!

I would definitely say that's an Owlfly. The antennae are very much clubbed, being narrow all the way up until it ends in that blob. Antlion antennae are only slightly clubbed and tend to get wider and wider as you get to the end.

Also Owlflies have bigger eyes that get fairly close to meeting at the top, almost like a dragonfly. Antlions have smaller eyes that are much more separate, more like a damselfly.

Hope that helps!

Gurunath Prabhudesai said...

Thank you Joseph for taking time to answer this. Much appreciated.

Cy Lee Pl said...

I am 48 year old, I never know about this insert until I saw an real owlfly today.

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

Ha! No shame in that. Owlflies are definitely on the more obscure side!

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