(Don’t Fear) The Hippoboscidae

I spent most of today with a fly. That may seem like a huge waste of time, but this was no ordinary fly – it was a wallaby fly. The closest I usually get to one of these flies is when I see a wallaby in the garden furiously flicking its ears trying to dislodge one. The individual here took a liking to me in the garden, and hitched a ride inside.

Flies of the family Hippoboscidae are all blood-sucking ectoparasites, i.e. parasites that live on the outside of their hosts. These flies usually cling to the hair of mammals or feathers of birds depending on the fly species involved. They have characteristically flattened bodies, powerful legs, and fishhook-like claws (clearly visible in the image below). You can see now why they are known generally as ‘louse flies’. There are more than 200 species found throughout the world (30 species here), and about 75% of them are ectoparasites of birds.

Wallaby Fly Hippoboscidae

Hippoboscid flies are quite particular about their hosts, for example flies which feed on mammals are not found on birds or vice versa. Back in the 1930’s research was conducted to determine if pigeon louse flies (Pseudolynchia canariensis) could bite humans and survive on human blood. The conclusion? They will bite humans when given no other choice of warm-blooded host. In other words, only when they are forced to. In case you were wondering – I wasn’t bitten.

Farmers in cooler regions of Australia may remember the introduced hippoboscid species Melophagus ovinus known as the ‘sheep ked’ or ‘sheep-tick’. In the past heavy infestations of this pest could cause anaemia in sheep, but modern farming practices have made occurrences of this pest quite rare. If you want to know more about this pest go here.

Green peach aphid giving birth to live young

While reading about hippoboscid flies I learned a new phrase – ‘adenotrophic viviparity’.  I was familiar with ‘ovoviviparity’, where eggs are held within females until they hatch internally, and the females give birth to live young. The picture above shows a green peach aphid doing just that. Adenotrophic viviparity is where eggs hatch inside the female, and the larvae are fed internally until they are mature enough to pupate. The larvae pupate immediately after being deposited by the female. The vulnerable larvae are therefore only momentarily exposed to predators.

I photographed the wallaby fly on the back of my hand in an attempt to show that it was a bloodsucker. It was also a skittish critter! Towards the end of the shoot it flew off my hand and landed on my black T-shirt – camouflaging it beautifully. It wasn’t until it crawled onto my face that I knew where it was. “Perhaps I’ve got enough photos now”, I thought. I hastily retrieved the fly and released it outside. Look out wallabies!

Many of you will have noticed that my post title (Don’t Fear) The Hippoboscidae references the 1976 Blue Oyster Cult classic (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. This song has had several lives including the original (link), the merciless Will Ferrell et al parody (link) – where the line ‘more cowbell’ originates – and the fun version with cowbell (link) by Leo Moracchioli.

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Preying on a mantis

For every insect out there, there is another insect which will try to eat it or breed in or on it.

Praying mantids are common predatory insects found in virtually any part of Australia in any habitat where they can find prey. Mantids are an insect Order all of their own known as Mantodea, comprising about 2,500 species worldwide, and about 200 Australian species. These insects are commonly called ‘mantises’ or singularly as a ‘mantis’ – but they are more correctly known as ‘mantids’ or singularly as a ‘mantid’.

Mantids are instantly recognisable insects with their triangular heads and their characteristic way of standing with forelegs held together as if they were praying – hence ‘praying’ mantid (image below). The word ‘mantis’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘seer’ or ‘prophet’, which probably alludes to their praying stance. There is a genus of mantids bearing the name Mantis – for example the classic ‘praying mantis’ Mantis religiosa found through Europe, Asia and Africa. Australia only has one representative of that genus, a mantid known as Mantis octospilota.

Praying mantid

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Cuckoos & cleptos

Most of us are familiar with the activities of avian cuckoos where a bird lays its eggs in the nest of a host bird of a different species, after kicking out the eggs that were laid by the host. We have a dozen or so species of cuckoos in Australia and some of them utilise the nests of birds half their size. The worst mismatch I have seen was a pair of exhausted Superb Blue Wrens (Malurus cyaneus) trying to feed a massive fledgling Fan-tailed cuckoo (Cuculua pyrrhophanus). The young cuckoo was never happy with the amount of food brought to it and constantly pecked its foster parents.

Did you know there are insect cuckoos too? Granted there’s not a lot of the bullying going on like in the bird example described above, but there is certainly similar amounts of clandestine behaviour. There are about 75 species in the wasp family Chrysididae in Australia, with common species being referred to as “cuckoo wasps”. They vary in length from about 6 mm to 22 mm in length and they are strikingly beautiful insects because of their metallic colours.

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