Mozambique Diary: The real birds-of-paradise

Once an adult male burrowing mayfly lands on the the surface of the water it dies within a few minutes. (The angel-like halo around this insect's head is a reflection of my flash, which normally I would not tolerate, but in this case it seems appropriate.)

Once an adult male burrowing mayfly lands on the the surface of the water it dies within a few minutes. (The angel-like halo around this insect’s head is a reflection of my flash, which normally I would not tolerate, but in this case it seems appropriate.)

Early Portuguese and Spanish explorers who visited the island of New Guinea in the 16th century were astounded by magnificent, brilliantly colored birds, whose plumage was used by the locals to adorn their headgear and bodies. European naturalists who examined skins of these birds brought back from New Guinea noticed that all specimens lacked legs, and concluded that the birds must have spent their entire life hovering above the ground, akin to angels, and never needed to walk or stand on solid ground. Even Linnaeus was not entirely immune to these legends, and named one of the species Paradisaea apoda, or The Legless Bird-of-Paradise. How silly! Surely, there cannot be an animal that spends its entire life in flight without touching the ground. Or can it?

Yesterday we had a pretty rainy day in Chitengo, which made a lot of insects very happy, including clouds of termites emerging from their underground nests and flying in search of mates. Among the many insect species coming to lights around the camp were strange flying creatures which, once they hit the ground, could never lift off again. At first I thought that those insects must have been injured, but when I picked one up I noticed that the insect, despite having two pairs of large wings, didn’t have functional legs.

Legs of burrwing mayflies (Polymitarcyidae) are reduced to useless stubs and are completely non-functional. Males' front legs are slightly larger and may by used during mating, which also takes place in the air.

Legs of burrwing mayflies (Polymitarcyidae) are reduced to useless stubs and are completely non-functional. Males’ front legs are slightly larger and may by used during mating, which also takes place in the air.

These strange animals turned out to be burrowing mayflies of the family Polymitarcyidae. As larvae these insects develop by digging in the mud of streams and, after completing their aquatic development, winged adults leave the water looking for love. But once in the air, they can never land again. Their legs, especially those of males, are completely atrophied, and cannot be used for walking or even standing. The few short hours that the male mayflies spend as adult insects take place entirely in the air – if they land, they die.

Legless birds-of-paradise from New Guinea turned out to be a fraud, but animals that spend their entire adult life in the air are very real. They may not be as colorful as the birds, but this does not make them any less fascinating.

P.S. Nearly two weeks later after  losing a Pelican case with my photo equipment on a flight to Johannesburg I was today reunited with my luggage, which makes me very happy.

10 thoughts on “Mozambique Diary: The real birds-of-paradise

  1. How splendid! I’m a biology prof who studies mayflies, and I’d like to print this blog post and put it on the bulletin board outside my office. May I have your permission to do so?

  2. It’s fascinating to learn about more and more insects species that have lost ‘expensive’ parts of their bodies that were no longer used. Eyes in caves, wings in cold climates, mouth parts in sex machines, legs in aerial life style what else?

  3. Pingback: Expiscor (29 March 2013) | Arthropod Ecology

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