Friday, August 7, 2015

Phantom in the Forest

“What’s that!?” exclaimed Ellie. “Where?” “What?” “I see it!” “Weird!” came the jumble of replies.

Six strong girls were relaxing on the riverbank, philosophizing about how they came to care about nature. This group of high school girls from the Northland College summer program had just paddled a short but beautiful stretch of the Namekagon River, taking time to catch aquatic insects, learn about river geology, and check out some amazing flowers in bloom.

Now, something crazy was interrupting our conversation. A wisp of a creature floated in and out of view. For not appearing to be a strong flyer, it certainly sped along faster than the eye could focus on its form. It was just the size of the hole in your fingers when you make the “ok” sign, and barely more substantial than that empty space, too.

The mystery came and went all afternoon, interrupting our discussions as we all tried to get a better look at it. Black and white bands on the thread-like legs broke up its outline, and allowed it to disappear against the backdrop of vegetation. We tried to catch it, but all depth perception failed. Finally, I too, had to fade into the river and return home.

Back in my kitchen, movement at the window caught the corner of my eye. There it was again! This time, with the internet close by, I was able to solve the mystery. Aptly named, these creatures are phantom crane flies.

Last summer I wrote about the much more substantial giant eastern crane fly. Phantom crane flies are in a related family all their own, and are known for their ghostly ability to disappear. Their preference for the dense and shady vegetation along wetlands aids in their habit of vanishing into the background.

When you finally do see a phantom crane fly, they are no less astonishing. All legs are held perpendicular to the ground when they fly—spread out in a big circle—making them look a little like a floating snowflake.  They barely use their wings when flying. Instead, their legs are light and hollow, and have inflated sections at their tips that catch the breeze like little sails.

This low-energy movement is useful for an insect that isn’t known to eat as an adult. Mating is likely their main goal, and it occurs either in mid-air, or with the female clinging daintily to a leaf. In either case, the smaller male is suspended from the female’s abdomen, and doesn’t seem to fly or perch at all during the process.

The female then dips the tip of her abdomen in water or mud and deposits over 300 eggs at a time. Small worm-like larvae hatch, burrow into the muck, and then breathe air from the surface through a long siphon tube. They eat debris and organic matter before metamorphosing through the pupa stage and becoming the only slight less cryptic adult.

In the process of sharing the answer to our phantom encounter with the girls, I reflected back on our insect-interrupted conversation about why we care. Time in nature and encounters with wild things were two common themes. And, whether the girls realize it or not, I believe that it is also their willingness to be curious, and to be excited by the mysteries of the world that will keep their love of nature alive.

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” --Rachel Carson

Phantom crane flies are fairy-like creatures with tiny wings and tiny sails on the tips of their black-and-white legs. Look for them in dense wetland vegetation.
Photo by Brandon Woo.

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