Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Phantom of the Adirondacks

“You have to get your camera and get a picture of this really cool bug!” exclaimed my coworker breathlessly. So I grabbed the camera and went outside. The insect in question, as soon as I had it in my sights, promptly took off and vanished. After much skulking around, I was finally able to capture its image. “I think it’s some kind of cranefly,” I said, based on the long skinny legs and the overall body shape. But, not being an entomologist, I wasn’t about to stake my reputation on it, so I sent the image off to BugGuide.net for confirmation.

Gosh, I love it when I’m right. It turns out this beautiful insect is a Phantom Cranefly (Bittacomorpha clavipes). It gets its name from its cryptic coloration. I know what you’re thinking: black and white is hardly cryptic. Why, the insect stands out like a sore thumb. AH, but when the insect flies into the shade, the body seems to vanish, phantom-like, with only the white bars remaining visible. This explains why I had so much difficulty tracking it every time it took off.

It turns out, however, that this delicate insect has an even more interesting bit of physiology than its coloration. The part of the legs that we might liken to ankles is specially modified. Up close, these sections are swollen and concave in shape. When the insect flies, it spreads its legs out and the wind catches the “ankles”, pushing the insect along like a little kite.

The Phantom Cranefly begins its life when the female lays her eggs, singly or in small clusters, along the edge of water. Soon the larvae emerge and begin a life of scavenging organic matter in the shallow water. The strange larva is easy to recognize by its “tail,” which is, in fact, the larva’s breathing tube. Just like a snorkle, this apparatus is lifted to the water’s surface, emerges long enough for the insect to inhale, and then down it goes again to continue scavenging. When the larva is ready to pupate, it crawls out of the water and digs into moist soil. There, beneath the ground, it goes through The Change and becomes an adult. The adults exist for one purpose only: to breed and pass on their genes. As such, they do not eat (or if they do, it is very little and no scientist has discovered what it is).

It’s really a rather uneventful life, so perhaps the boredom is broken up by the flashy colors and nifty body ornamentation. At the very least, these insects are attractive to insect enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. So keep your eyes peeled, and if you see a small wispy black and white kite drift by, take another look. It might just be the Phantom of the Adirondacks.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



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