Overlooked, needle-tailed, thick-headed fly

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power w/ diffuser caps.

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power w/ diffuser caps.

While photographing the rare Typocerus deceptus on flowers of wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) at Trail of Tears State Park in southeast Missouri last June, I encountered this strange fly also visiting the hydrangea blossoms.  At first I thought it was some weird type of syrphid fly, but it turns out to be a member of an even more unusual group of flies in the appropriately-named genus Stylogaster¹.  Although classified in the family Conopidae (thick-headed flies), members of this genus are placed in their own subfamily (Stylogastrinae) due to their unusual morphology and biology (obligate parasites of crickets, cockroaches and calyptrate flies).  Ninty-two described species are currently placed in the genus, only two of which occur in North America (the remainder are found chiefly in the Neotropics and in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia).  This individual appears to be a female S. neglecta because of its short 2nd antennomere (antennal segment) and highly elongate 3rd antennomere (in S. biannulata, the 2nd antennomere is almost as long as the 3rd). Thus, the “overlooked, needle-tailed, thick-headed fly” – and who said common names are easier?

¹ Derived from the Latin stilus (needle) and the Greek γαστηρ (belly, stomach), a reference to the highly elongated female abdomen, or “tail.”

Morphologically, stylogastrines are distinguished from other conopids by their eggs, which feature a rigid barbed tip.  This, along with some behavioral observations, seems to imply a shooting oviposition technique; however, morphological evidence suggests that the eggs are forcibly jabbed into their hosts (Kotrba 1997).  The larvae hatch and develop inside their host as internal parasites, but other than the egg very little is known about the life histories of species in this genus (Couri and Pont 2006).  Adults are further distinguished by their long proboscis, which exceeds the length of the body when fully extended and is used to access nectar within a variety of flowers.  Adult females aggressively intercept hosts in-flight for oviposition, and speculation has been made that they are obligate associates of army ants (New World subfamily Ecitoninae and Old World subfamily Dorylinae), relying upon the ants’ raiding columns to flush out their prey.  However, since the genus also occurs in Madagascar and parts of Africa where army ants are completely absent, it is clear that at least some species of Stylogaster have no obligatory association with these ants (Stuckenberg 1963, Couri and Pont 2006).

REFERENCES:

Couri, M. S. and A. C. Pont. 2006. Eggs of Stylogaster Macquart (Diptera: Conopidae) on Madagascan Muscids (Diptera: Muscidae). Proceedings of the California Academy of Science 57(16):473-478.

Kotrba, M. 1997. Shoot or stab? Morphological evidence on the unresolved oviposition techique in Stylogaster Macquart (Diptera: Conopidae), including discussion of behavioral observations. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 99:613-621.

Stuckenberg, B. R.  1963.  A study on the biology of the genus Stylogaster, with the description of a new species from Madagascar.  Revue de Zoologie et Botaniques Africaines 68:251-275.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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10 Responses to Overlooked, needle-tailed, thick-headed fly

  1. Hi Ted

    A stunning photo! I guess these flies are wary and very active so a good shot like yours would be quite difficult to achieve. I guess also that maybe yours is the first digital image for the species?

    Best regards, Trevor

    • Thanks Trevor. This fly was quite wary, but patience and slow movements allowed me to get as close to it as I wanted. Believe it or not, there are a number of online photos of this species (of course, I like this one best :)).

  2. I’m finding flies to be increasingly interesting. Many that we find innocently picking over flowers have parasitic alter-egos as larva. Did you see the Conopid I found in my garden? (Attack Fly – Bee Aware)

    • Hi Adrian – I have to admit that the more I look at flies, the cooler they are. I wrote a post last year about my “love-hate” affair with the order (Magnificently Monstrous Muscomorphs).

      I’ve seen the species in your photo a few times – it was the basis of my mental image for this group, so I was stumped when I photographed this one. They become ever more interesting!

  3. Great blog and excellent photos! I really enjoy the taxonomic side of your posts! Just wanted to let you know that Conopids are commonly referred to as thick-headed flies, not big-headed flies (which are actually the Pipunculidae). Keep up the great work!

    • Doh! Yes, you are quite right. I even knew that, but my brain was saying one thing and my fingers were saying another. That’s what happens when a coleopterist tries to masquerade as a dipterist🙂 Thanks for catching that (appropriate edits made).

      I’m glad you enjoy the taxonomy – it’s hard for me to gauge how much that adds to or detracts from interest in my posts, but I like it so it stays.

  4. Moe says:

    Wonderful! I love the taxonomy, too. The more info. the better!

  5. Trevor Burt says:

    Great post Ted, here’s an article on Stylogaster we just published in the Canadian Entomologist you might find interesting. We revised the group and added a new species to the region: http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FTCE%2FTCE147_02%2FS0008347X1400039Xa.pdf&code=734253d1a380de044579326df0a7aa58

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