Owl-fly – a rare visitor

dragonfly-like insect

Owl-flies are rarely seen and even more rarely known for what they are – “some kind of strange dragonfly” would probably be the commonest response to seeing one. In one way it’s not far wrong, either, since they are aerial predators of smaller insects just as dragonflies are. Wikipedia says:

Adults … are most active at sunset and dawn and can often be collected around lights. During the day, such adults rest on stems and twigs with the body, legs, and antennae pressed to the stem. The abdomen in a few species is held up, projecting into the air, to look like a broken twig.

The first and last bits of that quote apply to the beautiful creature in my photo, which flew in through an open window a couple of nights ago to land on a light-shade. Looking twig-like isn’t great camouflage in that location but I guess it can’t know that.

The similarity to dragonflies is somewhat misleading; a result of convergent evolution, it signals their similar lifestyle but disguises the fact that they are not closely related. Here’s Wikipedia again:

They are neuropterans in the family Ascalaphidae; they are only distantly related to the true flies, and even more distant from the dragonflies and damselflies. They are diurnal or crepuscular predators of other flying insects, and are typically 5 cm (2.0 in) long.
Owlflies are readily distinguished from dragonflies because the latter have short bristle-like antennae. The closely related antlions (family Myrmeleontidae) have short, weakly clubbed antennae, smaller eyes, and very different wing venation
The owlflies are most closely related to the antlions (Myrmeleontidae) and the prehistoric Babinskaiidae, and these three make up the most advanced group of Neuroptera.

The links in that quote are to my own photos of the other families (sometimes in posts like this one). Another family which is worth mentioning here is Robber-flies, true flies (Diptera) with, again, similar lifestyle and therefore similar appearance.

I haven’t been able to identify my visitor down to species level but I’m reasonably confident of its genus: Suhpalacsa. It may be the same species as this one, the only other owl-fly I have photographed in more than four years of snapping anything that came my way. I did say they are rarely seen, didn’t I?

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