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home : columns : columns May 29, 2016

7/3/2013 9:34:00 AM
The coming of the snakefly
Adult, female snakefly; not as bad as it looks.  photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Adult, female snakefly; not as bad as it looks. photo by Jim Anderson

By Jim Anderson

My old pal, Kris Kristovich, Sisters High School track coach and splendid photographer, sends me the best photos from nature about once a week. The other day he sent a bunch of warbler photos that contained a male Wilson's warbler singing, about knocked my eye out. I thought I could hear it; it was so wonderful.

Once in a while, he has a photo he can't ID. The photo he sent was that of a snakefly, similar to that above. I was going to use his excellent image for this story, but I liked mine better. I knew the subject personally; she was sitting on the back of my hand when I captured it years ago - on film.

That long stinger-like object sticking out from the end of the insect's behind is not a "stinger." It's an egg-laying device, known as an ovipositer. It cannot do anything but allow the female to lay her eggs in crevices of rotting wood or bark - not on or in a human's or any other animal's body.

When the eggs hatch, they will become snakefly larvae.

You do not have to smash or otherwise mutilate a snakefly just because it looks like it might inject something into your tender body; it can't.

The larvae (babies) have large heads with loooong projecting mandibles (grippers). The head and the first segment of the thorax (middle body part) are sclerotised (hardened), but the rest of the body is soft and fleshy, and they have three pairs of true legs. The adults possess an adhesive organ on the dorsal (bottom) part of the abdomen (hind end), with which they can fasten themselves to vertical surfaces.

Pretty slick, don't you think?

The final larval instar (case) creates a cell in which the insect pupates (finishes metamorphosis). However, they do not create a cocoon; the pupa is fully capable of movement, and often leaves its cell for another location before the adult emerges (something butterflies and moths cannot do), and the process can take up to two years to develop.

Now, with that behind us, let me share some further neat things about the snakefly:

First, it's been flying about the Earth since Permian times - an age of the Earth belonging to geologic time, and identified by a system of rocks, or sedimentary deposits of the seventh and last period of the Paleozoic Era.

That's about 250 million years ago - at the end of the Carboniferous - when giant dragonflies were wandering the earth eating giant mosquitoes. Oregon was only a tiny part of a colossal plate on the Earth's surface, known as the supercontinent Pangaea.

The snakefly and it's cousins had a wing-span of almost a foot. It was also the dawn of conifers - and ended with the largest known mass extinction in the history of life thanks to a meteor that smashed into Earth near where Yucatan is today. But the ancestors of the snakefly escaped the impact and are still with us today, but a lot smaller.

When the dust settled, lace-winged insects, known today as the Neuropteraans, were fluttering about the dinosaur remains, chomping down smaller insects attracted to the awful offal. During Permian times there were super-sized insects with a wing-span of over 12-inches. How do we know? Paleontologists have found their fossils in China, New Jersey, and other places.

I think the dinosaur genes are still with us today. Proof of that is when I used to watch my chickens chase a mouse around the chicken yard, tear it to pieces and gulp it down - just like their ancient cousins, the velociraptor, tore smaller animals to pieces and ate them.

("Used to" because I no longer have any chickens. I once had an irresponsible neighbor who allowed his dogs to wander, and they came onto my place one day when Sue and I weren't home and killed all my beloved chickens...)

Snakeflies are predators on smaller insects, both as adults and larvae; just like they were in the olden days. But they are now known to be in the order Raphidioptera. There are about 210 extant species, common throughout temperate Europe and Asia. In North America they occur exclusively in the western U.S., in the Rockies and westward, including the southwestern desert and Sisters Country.

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