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Temporal range: Permian - Recent 299–0 Ma
Skorpionsfliege Panorpa communis male full.jpg
Panorpa communis, male
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
(unranked): Antliophora
Order: Mecoptera
Hyatt & Arms, 1891

Mecoptera (from the Greek: meco- = "long", -ptera = "wings") are an order of insects with about 550 species in nine families worldwide. Mecoptera are sometimes called scorpionflies after their largest family, Panorpidae, in which the males have enlarged genitals that look similar to the stinger of a scorpion. The Bittacidae, or hangingflies, are a prominent family of elongate insects known for their elaborate mating rituals, in which females choose mates based on the quality of gift prey offered by various males.

While modern Mecoptera are overwhelmingly predators or consumers of dead organisms, early ones might have played an important role before the evolution of other insects in pollinating extinct gymnosperms.[2][3]

Anatomy and biology[edit]

Mecoptera are small to medium insects with slender, elongated bodies. They have relatively simple mouthparts, with long mandibles and fleshy palps, which resemble those of the more primitive true flies. Like many other insects, they possess compound eyes on the sides of their heads, and three ocelli on the top. Most Mecoptera feed on vegetation in moist environments; in hotter climates, they may therefore be active only for short periods of the year.[4]

Male Panorpa dubia.
A, Body in lateral view; B–D. male genital bulb and gonostyli. B, dorsal view; C, ventral view; D, lateral view. ep, epandrium; gcx, gonocoxite; gs, gonostylus; hv, hypovalva; hyp, hypandrium. Scale bars represent 3 mm in A, 1 mm in B–D

The wings are narrow in shape, with numerous cross-veins, and somewhat resemble those of primitive insects such as mayflies. A few genera, however, have reduced wings, or have lost them altogether. The abdomen is cylindrical, and typically curves upwards in the male, superficially resembling the tail of a scorpion, the tip containing an enlarged structure called the genital bulb.

The female lays the eggs in close contact with moisture, and the eggs typically absorb water and increase in size after deposition. In species that live in hot conditions, the eggs may not hatch for several months, the larvae only emerging when the dry season has finished. More typically, however, they hatch after a relatively short period of time.[4]

The larvae are usually quite caterpillar-like, with short, clawed, true legs, and a number of abdominal prolegs. They have sclerotised heads with compound eyes and mandibulate mouthparts. The tenth abdominal segment bears either a suction disc, or, less commonly, a pair of hooks. They generally eat vegetation or scavenge for dead insects, although some predatory larvae are known.[4]

The larva crawls into the soil or decaying wood to pupate, and does not spin a cocoon. The pupae are exarate, meaning the limbs are free of the body, and are able to move their mandibles, but are otherwise entirely nonmotile. In drier environments, they may spend several months in diapause, before emerging as adults once the conditions are more suitable.[4]


DNA evidence indicates that the fleas, traditionally a separate order (Siphonaptera), are instead highly specialized scorpionflies.[5] The Boreidae are the sister clade to the Siphonaptera, so "Mecoptera" is paraphyletic, but there is a clade that contains both Mecoptera and Siphonaptera, with about 3000 known species.[6] Two synapomorphies are the production of the rubbery cuticle material resilin, and panoistic ovarioles,[7] which lack nurse cells and instead have germ cells forming a continuous tube.

Mecoptera have special importance in evolution of Insecta. Two of the most important insect orders, Lepidoptera and Diptera, along with Trichoptera, probably evolved from ancestors belonging to, or strictly related to, the Mecoptera. This is apparent from anatomical and biochemical similarities, but, moreover, transitional fossils, such as Permotanyderus and Choristotanyderus, have been discovered to lie between the Mecoptera and Diptera.[4]

The group was once much more widespread and diverse than at present, having as many as four suborders during the Mesozoic.[4]

First pollinators[edit]

Miriholcorpa forcipata holotype, a Middle Jurassic scorpionfly

Extinct Mecoptera species have been proposed to have been important plant pollinators.[2][3] Early nonangiosperm gymnosperm seed plants during the late Middle Jurassic to mid–Early Cretaceous period have been believed to be mainly wind-pollinated. However, examination of fossil mecopterans show they had siphon feeding apparatus that could fertilize early gymnosperms by feeding on their nectar and pollen. The lack of iron enrichment in their fossilized probosces rules out a use in blood drinking. One question over this suggestion is that so far pollen has not been found associated with these feeding parts, which is surprising for the amber-encased insects which should have preserved pollen, but "further fossils may provide this information".[2]

Eleven species have been identified belonged to three families, Mesopsychidae, Aneuretopsychidae, and Pseudopolycentropodidae for which "the encompassing name Aneuretopsychina is available".[3] Their lengths range from 3 mm in Parapolycentropus burmiticus to 28 mm in Lichnomesopsyche gloriae.[3] The proboscis could be as long as 10 mm. Pollen transfer has been suggested to occur by body surface transport on mouthparts and head surfaces like that in bee flies and hover flies, but no such associated pollen has been found, though the insects were preserved in amber.[3] They are thought to have pollinated such plants as Caytoniaceae, Cheirolepidiaceae, Czekanowskiaceae, Pentoxylaceae, and Gnetales, as their ovulate organs are either poorly suited for wind pollination or have structures that could support long-proboscid fluid feeding.[3]


Scorpionflies in the Bittacidae provide a nuptial meal in the form of a captured insect prey. The size of the prey is correlated with the mating time allowed by the female:[8]

Interaction with humans[edit]

Forensic entomology makes use of scorpionflies' habit of feeding on human corpses. Scorpionflies were the first insects to arrive at a donated human cadaver observed (by the entomologist Natalie Lindgren) at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility near Huntsville, Texas, and remained on the corpse for one and a half days. The presence of scorpionflies thus indicates that a body must be fresh.[9][10]

Scorpionflies are sometimes described as looking "sinister", particularly from the male's raised "tail" resembling a scorpion's sting.[11]



  1. ^ Byers, G. W. and Thornhill, R. 1983. Biology of the Mecoptera. Annual review of Entomology. 28: 203-228
  2. ^ a b c Ollerton J. Coulthard E. (2009). Evolution of Animal Pollination. Science, 326: 808-809. doi:10.1126/science.1181154
  3. ^ a b c d e f Ren D, Labandeira CC, Santiago-Blay JA, Rasnitsyn A, Shih CK, Bashkuev A, Logan MA, Hotton CL, Dilcher D. (2009). Probable Pollination Mode Before Angiosperms: Eurasian, Long-Proboscid Scorpionflies. Science, 326 (5954), 840-847. doi:10.1126/science.1178338
  4. ^ a b c d e f Hoell, H.V., Doyen, J.T. & Purcell, A.H. (1998). Introduction to Insect Biology and Diversity, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. pp. 488–491. ISBN 0-19-510033-6. 
  5. ^ Whiting, Michael F. (2002). "Mecoptera is paraphyletic: multiple genes and phylogeny of Mecoptera and Siphonaptera". Zoologica Scripta. 31 (1): 93–104. doi:10.1046/j.0300-3256.2001.00095.x. 
  6. ^ Wiegmann, Brian; Yeates, David K. (2012). The Evolutionary Biology of Flies. Columbia University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-231-50170-5. Recently, a close affinity between Siphonaptera and Mecoptera has been convincingly demonstrated via morphology (Bilinski et al. 1998) and molecular data (Whiting 2002), rendering Mecoptera paraphyletic, but making the clade including Mecoptera and Siphonaptera monophyletic... there is a general consensus among entomologists that the relationships described above are relatively well established. 
  7. ^ Bilinski, S. M.; Büning, J.; Mimiczyjew, B. (1998). "The ovaries of Mecoptera: basic similarities and one exception to the rule". Folia Histochem Cytobiol. 36 (4): 189–195. PMID 10051973. 
  8. ^ Gullan, P.J. and P.S. Cranston. The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, second edition. 2000: Blackwell Science, Ltd.
  9. ^ Rutsch, Poncie (22 January 2015). "Finding Crime Clues In What Insects Had For Dinner". NPR. Retrieved 22 June 2015. 
  10. ^ "Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility". STAFS. 
  11. ^ "Weirdest Looking Bugs". EnkiVillage. Retrieved 22 June 2015. 


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