Photo of the Week – December 1, 2017

Back in July, my daughter tagged along with me on a trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Because she’s in college now, and I don’t see her all that often, it was particularly gratifying to have a few days of concentrated time together.  On the last morning of our trip, we decided to hike the Preserve’s public trail through some hills overlooking the Niobrara River and its valley.

The peacefulness of this scene belies the violence that had taken place only a few moments before…

Not long after we started walking, I heard a cicada burst out of the grass in front of us and loudly rattle off into the prairie.  It was a sound we’d heard many times over the previous days, but this time, instead of fading gradually away, the sound stopped suddenly, only a second or so after it started.   A couple steps later, my brain finally identified the anomaly and I turned around and walked in the direction the cicada had flown.  I found it where it had landed, and quickly saw why its flight had been cut short.  The cicada was lying on the ground, making short buzzing noises, and there was a big robber fly sitting right on top of it.  The scene was particularly impressive given the size of the cicada (about the size of my thumb) compared to the much smaller fly.

Despite being significantly smaller than the massive cicada, the robber fly brought it down pretty quickly , and seemed to know just where to insert its proboscis between the chinks in the cicada’s armor.

Robber flies are common in prairies, and we’d been seeing quite a few hanging around during the previous weeks.  I knew they were voracious predators, but had never seen one take down another animal so much bigger than itself.  Only a year ago, I got to watch one intercept and kill a tiger beetle that was trying to fly away from me.  Watching that robber fly come out of nowhere to knock a beetle out of the air was impressive, but at least in that case the predator was a lot bigger than its prey.

I photographed this robber fly just a week or so before the cicada attack.

Since I didn’t actually see this particular attack, I can only assume the robber fly followed the typical robber fly script.  It was probably perched nearby, scanning the skies for prey, and as the cicada lifted off, the robber fly launched itself like a guided missile and rammed into the cicada, knocking it to the ground.  Then, it must have very quickly employed its hypotharynx (modified mouthparts) to inject a toxin into the cicada.  That toxin rapidly immobilized, and eventually liquefied the cicada’s insides.  By the time I arrived on the scene, the cicada was already close to death, and certainly wasn’t going anywhere.  Anna and I didn’t want to disturb the robber fly’s meal, so we walked on, leaving the fly to suck the cicada shell dry – a well-earned meal.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Photo of the Week – December 1, 2017

  1. Wonderful piece. Love the range of experience from a daughter’s return to a rapacious robber fly’s attack. Each there own sort of nourishment!

  2. Paul Brewer says:

    Excellent photos as usual Chris! The very long legs of the robber fly might also be an interesting adaptation in allowing it to capture prey. It would be interesting to see a slow motion video of a robber fly making a catch. The robber fly almost looks spider-like over the top of the cicada!

  3. Kathryn Kerr says:

    Cool!

  4. Great capture of the robber fly, a very fascinating insect.

  5. Natalie Matz says:

    What a neat part of nature to experience!

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