Tuesday 12 July 2011

Face off

ResearchBlogging.orgEctemnius wasps are skilled fly hunters. Not only they hunt flies, but some species specialise in hoverflies, those masters of controlled flight. Like their prey, Ectemnius wasps are able to hover. As their large eyes suggest, they hunt visually and inspect flower patches that hoverflies frequent, hovering a bit, changing body direction, inspecting their terrain thoroughly. Once they detect a hoverfly, they try to approach from behind, and when at about 10 cm they aim and attack. Ectemnius provisions its nest - dug in dead wood - with hoverflies, which will serve as food for its larvae. The adults themselves feed on nectar. I was trying to photograph this digger wasp stalking hover flies, when it came across a male Syritta pipiens. The tiny hoverfly male, which often confronts other hoverfly males on this patch of wild rocket, instead of fleeing, it confronted the wasp, mirroring the predator movements and keeping his distance, both insects hovering perfectly still in front of each other for a few moments. Surprisingly, the wasp did not attack the fly and just moved on. Some insects have been shown to display a stealth strategy called "motion camouflage" by which an individual (the shadower) can conceal its movements to another individual (the shadowee) by maintaning its position in the retina of the shadowee. The shadower then appears as an stationary object from the point of vision of the shadowee. Some male hoverflies (and Syritta pipiens in particular) use this flying strategy to track females undetected and dragonflies use it to avoid being detected when intruding in other territories and it is also suspected to be used by visual insects when approaching prey. A range of models have been developed to simulate this strategy. Unsurprisingly, engineers are developing motion camouflage strategies to be applied to robots, satellites or with military purposes.
 According to Justh & Krishnaprasad:
Motion camouflage can be used by a predator to stealthily pursue the prey, but a motion-camouflage strategy can also be used by the prey to evade a predator. The only difference between the strategy of the predator and the strategy of the evader is that the predator seeks to approach the prey while maintaining motion camouflage, whereas the evader seeks to move away from the predator while maintaining motion camouflage.
I wonder if this was the case in the above photo. A temporary stale mate, but the prey got away.

Justh, E., & Krishnaprasad, P. (2006). Steering laws for motion camouflage Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 462 (2076), 3629-3643 DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2006.1742
Mizutani, A., Chahl, J., & Srinivasan, M. (2003). Insect behaviour: Motion camouflage in dragonflies. Nature, 423 (6940), 604-604 DOI: 10.1038/423604a


Anonymous said...

Great photograph! I haven't heard of these hover-fly hunters before-- thanks for the interesting and enlightening article.

Phil said...

That is an astonishing photograph!

Africa Gomez said...

Thank you Phil and Adrian, but alas! it was just sheer luck and the ability of the camera to autofocus on the wasp. I am in awe of these wasps, whenever they appear in the garden I leave what I am doing to watch them.

Anonymous said...

Great picture of a fascinating wasp (I never success to do the same), and great blog !