Compound Animal Names

I have two ‘save-the-date’ announcements of upcoming events that I’ll be involved with/

  1. First, this our 2023 Grassland Restoration Network workshop will be hosted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom, MN on August 22-23 this year. This workshop is designed for people involved in restoring (reconstructing) prairies and/or studying them. It’s a relatively informal, mostly field-based couple of days. More information and registration will be coming within the next few months.
  2. Second, we will be hosting our next annual Platte River Prairies Public Field Day on July 8, 2023. This is a free event, open to all ages, and is an opportunity to explore and learn about prairies from a variety of experts. Stay tuned for more details, but I hope you’ll plan to come visit us at the Platte River Prairies for this Saturday event.


This week, I came upon an old photo of a wasp-mimic mantidfly and created a funny (to me) post on Instagram about it. You’ll all know this species, obviously, from an earlier blog post I wrote and that you read and remember word for word. On the crazy off-chance you don’t immediately recall it, here’s a link.

Wasp-mimic mantidflies are pretty amazing creatures that aren’t mantids, wasps, or flies.

(Also, by the way, if you’re not on Instagram, good for you, it can be a toxic wasteland if you let it. On the other hand, there are some really great ecology-related people and accounts on Instagram from whom I learn a lot. My @prairieecologist account is a mix of humor and information, but always photos. If you’re already on the platform, check it out if you like.)

However, neither the mantidfly or Instagram are the topic of today’s post. What the mantidfly reminded me of is that there are lots of insects with compound names made up of two different animals. This, of course, is a phenomenon that is of great scientific value and is definitely worth writing (and reading) an entire blog post about.

In many cases, those compound names include one word that actually describes the kind of insect it is and another that supposedly connotes something about the appearance or behavior of the insect. For example, tiger beetles are predatory beetles Tigers are predatory cats. The word tiger helps clarify the behavior the beetle. Except, of course, that the beetle has wings and can fly, likes to hunt on bare ground, and has larvae that live in burrows. But aside from those, and many other differences, Tigers and tiger beetles are almost the same.

Tiger beetles are incredible predators, but while they have cat-like quickness, they have wings and aren’t cats. Imagine if tigers had wings… Would we call them fly tigers? Probably not.

In contrast, there are creatures like the mantidfly, which is neither a mantid or a fly. The mantid part makes some sense because the mantidfly has raptorial front legs that closely resemble the kind that praying mantises have. However, the mantidfly isn’t a fly. It can fly, but I don’t think that’s where the name comes from. Another example of two animal names stuck together oddly is the antlion, which is not an ant, and definitely not a lion. In this case, at least, there is some logic behind the ‘ant’ part, which is that the larva often feeds on ants and other small insects like them.

Antlions aren’t lions. They’re also not damselfies, though they look a lot like them. They have heavier bodies and bigger antennae than damselflies, along with lots of other less obvious differences.

If you aren’t familiar with antlions (and of course you are, because you remember a couple different blog posts I’ve written on them), the adult is pictured above, but most people might know them better from the little cone-shaped depressions they make in loose soil – often below a ledge or along the foundation of a building. At the bottom of each of those cones, mostly hidden in the soil, is an antlion larva waiting for an unlucky insect to slip and slide down the sides of its conical trap. You know, the same way lion cubs hunt. (Don’t you now wish that was the way lion cubs hunted??)

By the way, there’s a trick to knowing whether the compound animal name of an invertebrate is a type of one of those animals or not. Antlion is a single word, which tells you it isn’t actually a kind of lion. Tiger beetle is two separate words, which means it is one of a group of beetles. The same rule is supposed to apply across all animal names, I think, but you’ll find it isn’t always applied uniformly. Often, you’ll find two different spellings of the same creature’s name, both from seemingly reputable sources, but one will be all one word and one will be two separate words. Apart from that little issue, the one-word-or-two rule is really helpful.

Horse flies are flies. Two different words, not one. House flies, bee flies, and crane flies are also flies. (So are mosquitoes, though, which is confusing for other reasons.) Butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, of course, are not actually flies. They can all fly, at least.

This is a giant black horse fly. That’s both an apt description of the animal and one actual correct common name of the species. I think it’s the largest horse fly species in the U.S.
Bee flies are flies. This one has a long stiff mouthpart that it uses to feed on pollen and nectar from flowers.
Whether dragonflies belong in this post or not depends upon your feelings about the existence of dragons as actual animals. I’m not taking a position, partly because I’m always happy for an excuse to post a dragonfly photo.

There are several spiders that have animals for their first names. Wolf spiders are mobile predators, as are lynx spiders, so both those names fit well. Crab spiders aren’t associated with oceans or beaches, but they do have extra long front legs and some movements that resemble many crabs.

Wolf spiders are known for being good moms, but also as effective predators that chase down their prey in a way that is somewhat similar to wolves. Can you imagine, though, how scary they’d be (especially to people already leery of spiders) if wolf spiders hunted in packs??
Crab spiders have long front legs that give them a crab-like appearance.
Lynx spiders are a lot of fun to find and watch in the prairie. They stalk and pounce on prey much like cats, though cats would be way cooler if they had eight legs and were as small as lynx spiders.

There are thousands of moths in the world, and surely quite a number of them have animal first names, but the one I could immediately come up with was the tiger moth (there are lots of tiger moth species).

Here’s a tiger moth. I think the name comes from the stripes on the legs, which seems like kind of a stretch to me.
Here’s a caterpillar that will turn into a tiger moth if it gets to grow up.

The only bee I could think of with a compound animal name is the cuckoo bee (again, there are lots of cuckoo bee species). Cuckoo bees are named for the European cuckoo which, like the brown-headed cowbird, lays its eggs in other birds nests. Cuckoo bees do the same thing, except of course they lay their eggs in bee nests, not bird nests. We can all agree that’s the right move. I wrote about these and other species with similar strategies in a very recent post which, again, you all read and remember, but I’ll link to it here just to be redundant.

There are creatures called beewolves out there too. Using the rule you learned earlier, you’ll already know that beewolves aren’t wolves with bee-like tendencies (although wouldn’t that be amazing??) Instead, they’re wasps that attack bees and feed them to their little wasp larvae. Given the 100,000 or so wasp species out there, I’m sure there are other compound animal names among them. Anyone know any?

Here’s a cute little cuckoo bee on its overnight roost. Yes, it’s clinging to that plant with its mandibles.

There are at least several beetles with compound animal names, but I was disappointed that I don’t have photos of some of them, including rhinoceros and stag beetles. I do have lots of photos of longhorn beetles, but although a longhorn is technically a breed of domestic cow, it feels a little like cheating to include longhorn beetles in this list. I included them anyway.

This longhorn beetle is feeding on silky prairie clover flowers (Dalea villosa).

What am I missing? Help me think of other compound animal names for invertebrates. I guess we can include vertebrates too, if we have to, but I’m less excited about those (kangaroo rat, tiger shark, etc. – blah, blah, blah). Plants or fungi, though, would be fun if we can come up with some. Anyone?

What’s Really Going On Inside Those Galls?? (It’s Not Just Fly Larvae)

Many of you already know about the big round galls on the stems of goldenrod plants (there are other kinds of galls on goldenrod too). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, the galls are created when a goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) lays an egg on the stem, the larva hatches, and it burrows inside the plant. The goldenrod plant tissue grows rapidly around the larva, creating the gall. The fly then feeds on the plant tissue, shielded from danger by the plant, until it eventually pupates and emerges as an adult fly.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with Maximilian sunflower in the background. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.
A big round gall on a Canada goldenrod plant.
A goldenrod gall fly larva inside a gall. Note the size and shape of it.

It’s a nice story, but that version is way oversimplified. As is almost always true in nature, the more you look into a story, the more complex and fascinating it becomes. For example, that fly larva is not necessarily safe inside that gall.

There are two small chalcid wasp species that attack the little gall fly larva. One wasp species (Eurytoma obtusiventris) lays an egg inside the fly larva before it burrows inside the plant, initiating a sequence of events that turns out poorly for the fly. After the fly larva enters the plant and the gall forms, the wasp larva inside the fly larva hatches (cue creepy music). It starts eating the fly larva from the inside, also stimulating it to create a pupa much earlier than it normally would. That pupa provides a nice shelter, within which the wasp larva completes its consumption of the fly and then creates its own pupa before eventually emerging as an adult wasp.

The second wasp, Eurytoma gigantea, lays its egg inside the gall itself. The female wasp has a long ovipositor that it can insert into the gall, though it can only do so on smaller galls because its ovipositor is only so long. When the wasp egg hatches, the fly larva gains an unexpected and very dangerous roommate. The wasp larva tears the fly larva apart with its mouthparts and eats it. Then it starts eating the same plant tissues the fly would have eaten.

The two wasp species have very different approaches to killing the hapless fly larva, but both are very effective. Rarely, individuals of both wasp species end up sharing the same gall. After dispatching the fly, the two wasps can sometimes both survive and exit the gall after they pupate and become adults. Honor among parasitoids, I guess, but I’m not sure how they both come out of that situation alive. According to researchers, it happens.

I’ve known the basics of the gall fly and wasp stories for years now, though I usually don’t remember the specifics of the wasp tactics. As a result, when I spontaneously decided to collect and cut open a few goldenrod galls I found on a recent hike, I wasn’t surprised that two of the galls contained a creature that definitely wasn’t a fly larva.

This definitely isn’t a goldenrod gall fly larva. The shape is all wrong. If you look to the left of the larva, you can see what might be the remains of the fly larva.

However, as I studied and photographed the non-fly larvae, they didn’t look much like larval wasps. They were too skinny and their bodies were the wrong shape. To the internet I went…

That’s when I learned about Mordellistena unicolor, a tiny beetle that also feeds on the tissue inside galls created by goldenrod and the goldenrod gall fly. A female beetle lays an egg on the outside of the gall in mid-summer and it subsequently hatches and burrows inside. It then tunnels around inside the gall, feeding on whatever it finds – mostly the plant tissue of the gall itself.

As I read about the beetle, I learned a new vocabulary word: inquiline. An inquiline lives in the same home as another creature and (generally) doesn’t cause the host any harm. Some of the papers I read categorized M. unicolor as an inquiline. Others called it a predator. In both cases, the authors acknowledged that the beetle larva was likely to eat the larva of the goldenrod fly if it happened upon it. Does that make it a predator or just a really bad houseguest? Either way, the fly larva loses again, unless the beetle never comes across it.

I’m pretty sure the skinny larvae I found were baby beetles. I also found what looked like the desiccated remains of the gall fly in at least one of the galls inhabited by a beetle larva. I can’t confirm that the fly was killed by the beetle, but it was dead nevertheless.

Between the two wasps and a beetle, there’s a lot of traffic inside those goldenrod galls that our original story that sold galls as a safe haven for the larvae of goldenrod gall flies. “If the wasps don’t getcha, the beetle probably will”, would make a good cross stitch wall-hanging for fatalistic flies. And yet, enough fly larvae survive each year to continue the whole process. That’s lucky for the flies, but also for the wasps and beetle, whose entire life strategy hinges on the flies making galls.

Now, you might be wondering, “What happens if a wasp is already there when the beetle arrives?” It’s a good question. As far as I could find, the beetle is just as happy to munch its way through a wasp larva as it is a fly larva. And, of course, in the case of E. obtusiventris, the wasp larva is INSIDE the fly larva, so it’s a kind of turducken situation for the beetle. (I couldn’t come up with a good portmanteau of wasp, fly, and larva that works as well as ‘turducken’ but you know I tried.)

So, if the first wasp finds the fly larva before it gets in the gall, the fly dies. If the second wasp finds a gall that’s small enough, it’ll lay an egg inside the gall and the fly dies. A beetle might enter the picture and, if so, there’s a good chance that the fly will die then too – or whichever wasp had already dealt with the fly. But not always.

That’s definitely a more complex story than “Fly larva burrows into a stem and a gall forms to protect and feed it.” How about just a little more complexity?

Ok. During the winter, there are at least two bird species that see goldenrod galls as a great place to find a snack. Downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees are both known to drill holes into galls and extract the larva from within. In fact, the woodpecker can apparently get the larva out within 30 seconds, which is pretty spectacular. Downy woodpeckers tend to make small neat holes (often slightly conical), where chickadees make bigger, messier holes. Now you have something to look for on your next winter prairie hike!

I’m pretty sure this gall was opened up by a downy woodpecker, given the size and shape of the hole.

When I say the birds extract and eat the larvae, they do, but not if it’s the larva of Eurytoma obtusiventris (the wasp that eats the fly larva from the inside out). At least according to one study from 1974-75, if a woodpecker opened a hole to a gall and found that wasp larva, it tended to just leave it there. There was no report on what happened if a woodpecker found the other wasp or the beetle, and no statement on the preferences of chickadees regarding larval species.

What have we learned, then? The goldenrod gall fly lays an egg on the stem of goldenrod and if its larva successfully hatches, it burrows inside the stem, causing the plant to create a big round gall around it. Inside, the fly larva starts to eat, unaware (we assume) that it might soon die a horrible death from one of many sources. It might get eaten by a wasp larva already inside its body, it might get torn apart and consumed by a different larval wasp, it might be fatally burrowed-through by a beetle larva, or it might be excavated and swallowed by a bird. If, by some miracle, none of those things happen, an adult goldenrod gall fly will emerge after the winter ends and try to keep the whole cycle going. I bet those successful flies have no idea how fortunate they are.

If you want to learn more, there are lots of research on goldenrod galls and the insects you can find inside them. Here are two examples. I wasn’t able to link you directly to the free PDF versions, but if you copy and paste the titles of these articles, you should be able to access them.

Mortality factors affecting Eurosta solidaginis (Diptera: Tephritidae). James H. Cane and Frank Kerczewski. Journal of the New York Entomological Society (1976) 84: 275-282.

Variation in selection pressure on the goldenrod gall fly and the competitive interactions of its natural enemies. Warren G. Abrahamson, Joan F. Sattler, Kenneth D. McCrea, and Aruther E. Weis. Oecologia (1989) 79:15-22