PHANTOM CRANE FLIES LIVE UP TO THEIR NAME

by Whit Gibbons

June 25, 2017

What’s your favorite insect? Butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies would certainly be in most people’s top 10. Praying mantises and walking sticks are also popular choices. Among beetles, the largest group of insects in the world, some top contenders are June bugs, ladybugs and click beetles. Katydids and tree crickets might make the cut for folks who enjoy musical night sounds. And for night sights, lightning bugs top the list. Honey bees would be the choice of some. If the phantom crane fly were better known, it would surely be a contender.

We watched these peculiar creatures in the swamp last week as they drifted over an area of dark mud. They have tiny wings, but their primary means of aerial flotation comes from their six long legs, some segments of which are expanded and filled with breathing tubes.

The legs extend outward from the body like wheel spokes to catch the faintest breeze. Phantom crane flies appear to float through the air. Their legs are alternating bands of black and white so that as they move from sunlight to shadow the dark markings disappear and only the lighter color is visible. If you are alongside a swamp and see an eerie specter of white dots drifting silently through the air, like part of a wafting spider web, you probably are looking at a phantom crane fly. It is a mesmerizing sight.

Crane flies belong to the order Diptera, the true flies, which have more than a million species. But in contrast to some of their kin, such as mosquitoes, horseflies and houseflies that have hundreds or thousands of species, those in the phantom crane fly family number only a handful.

In the eastern United States, most are likely to belong to a single species. Another distinction between these elegant spirits of the swamp and many other Diptera is that they are completely inoffensive – no biting, no buzzing, no stinging. If you are fortunate enough to have one land on your arm, it may depart like a dandelion blowball with the next puff of wind before you can even photograph it.

Put phantom crane flies on your list of harmless wildlife to look for on your next stroll near a swamp, stream or other natural wetland area with trees overhead that make it dark during the day. In my experience, they stay low to the ground and a mucky surface is the preferred habitat, where they lay their eggs for larvae to hatch before developing into pupae.

The larvae thrive on bits of decaying vegetation and diatoms, a type of algae, which are among the ingredients that make up what we call swamp mud. We should never be judgmental about a natural habitat, even if we find it yucky, because virtually all are important to some living organisms.

We should also appreciate all scavengers of the natural world, including vultures, opossums and phantom crane flies. Without them, the world would be an unpleasant place to live. On the flip side, I doubt if any predator makes a living eating adult phantom crane flies although the larvae are probably tasty to other denizens of swamp mud.

Once you develop a search image for phantom crane flies, you will be able to locate them readily if they are present. They drift at the mercy of the wind, and none will move faster than you walk unless the wind is more than a breeze. Our natural habitats have much to offer for those who take the time to look. Even if you don’t see a phantom crane fly on your visit to the edge of a dark wetland, check out the other sights and sounds around you. You might find a new favorite insect.

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