Friday 24 July 2015

Bird of Paradise Fly

Image: ron_n_beths pics

Image: Jean and Fred

The Bird of Paradise Fly is all about the fireworks! At least the male is. He can reach about 1 cm (0.4 in) long, not including his thrilling tail of glossy, waxy filaments.

Image: ron_n_beths pics
He also has two pairs of wings, one pair big and useful flying, the other tiny and scarcely visible. These wings may be grey, silvery or bear a lovely violet sheen depending on species. Half a dozen species have been described, all belonging to the genus Callipappus and found only in Australia and New Zealand.

Unlike actual birds of paradise, these flies don't use their lovely tails to attract females. And, in a way, that's not surprising. You know how male birds of paradise are amazingly pretty and colourful while the females are a bit drab and uninteresting? Bird of Paradise Flies are kind of like that...

Image: Ilena Gecan
Only more so. In contrast with the delicate, fairy-rocket males, females are big, chunky, leathery and... just a little maggoty.

Turns out Bird of Paradise Flies aren't really flies at all! Not true flies, like mosquitoes and house flies. They're actually scale insects. GIANT ones!

Image: ron_n_beths pics
Scale insects belong to the order Hemiptera, alongside aphids, cicadas and other true bugs who use their sharp, piercing mouth parts to suck sap out of plants. Most scale insects are just a few millimetres across and have females which live plastered and stuck fast to the plant they're feeding on. Once they find somewhere nice to sit, they need never walk or fly anywhere ever again! All that hard work is left to the male who retains his legs and usually wings, too.

Female Bird of Paradise Flies keep their legs but they really differ in sheer size: she can reach up to 4 cm (1.8 in) long, 100 times bigger than most other scale insects!

Image: ron_n_beths pics
Look! They're MADE for each other! Right?
Another oddity about these particular scale insects is that they feed from the underground roots of plants rather than the stems or leaves. With all their feeding done, adults with atrophied mouth parts emerge from the ground in autumn. The females climb up tree trunks and the like, the males take flight.

Eventually the males have to find the females, make sweet, weird love and promptly die. The waxy filaments that sparkle twice as bright sparkle half as long.

Image: antisense
Females on the other hand have to find a safe and secluded area to hide. Now it's time to see what she can do with her tail! It's not as pretty. She retracts the last, four segments of her abdomen into her body to form a chamber. It's a kind of marsupium into which she lays her eggs, which is ever so Australian. She also fattens up and covers herself in a strange, waxy powder, which presumably defends her from predators. That's important because she won't walk any more. She's finally acting more like a normal scale insect.

In time, one or two thousand tiny babies will emerge from a slit at the end of her abdomen. By now she's either DEAD or pretty much DEAD. Her children meanwhile are doing great. They have legs! They're known as crawlers because that's what they do. I guess it would've made more sense to point that out if their mother had spent almost the entirety of her life not crawling, as in other scale insects, but they're still crawlers and they still crawl. So there.

Image: ron_n_beths pics
Of course, they don't crawl up into juicy stems and leaves, they drop to the floor and crawl down into the equally juicy roots. There they feed and grow. Feed, lose their legs and grow. Eventually they get their legs back again when they enter adulthood and climb up from their subterranean kindergarten.

Some of them will be delightful fairy-rockets. But they're the sparkly tip of a dark and dingy iceberg.


TexWisGirl said...

wow! funky! like those fiberoptic lamps. :)

Lear's Fool said...

It's so...HUGE!

Esther said...

This has to be the weirdest insect I've ever seen before...and that's saying something.

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: Fiberoptics, yes. Not just a pretty tail!

@Lear's Fool: Monster massive!

@Esther: Wow, yeah. I think the male and female together make a couple that's a lot weirder than sum of its parts!