The giant crane fly: Insect can shred too!

by Raquel Rotem and Brianna Nemet

What happened when the Pennsylvania personal trainer who brought a giant crane flyto the gym?                His leaf litter got ripped to shreds!

CC some rights reserved Katja Schulz

The giant crane fly(Tipula abdominalis), as the name suggests, is the most massive crane fly in Pennsylvania.  They have a body length of new crayon broken in half, and the leg span of a power outlet on the wall.  They thrive on riverbanks throughout the state.   Before these insects take flight as adults, they start as one of the largest and most common spineless animals in woodland streams. And just like everyone else, all these larvae want to do is eat!

Giant crane flylarvae are shredders!   No, they do not shred on the slopes but rather consume dead fall foliage (e.g., Hickory, White Ash, American Chestnut). Studies show that the more decomposing leaf litter these larvae eat, the more they grow.  For these larvae, their energy comes directly from leaves.  Eating all that leaf litter means a large intake of sugar, but they can’t get access to these carbs directly.   Giant crane flies (along with many other little critters) are unable to degrade otherwise undigestible carbohydrates. So, how do these insects break down the complex sugars needed for their diet?

You’ve got a friend in me!

You named it!   GUT MICROBES!   Microbes live anywhere you can think of – even in the guts of giant crane flies.   Distinct microbial communities flourish at each developmental stage of the giant crane fly larvae and help convert polysaccharides into something digestible. Thus, giant crane fly larvae would not be able to make it through their needed prolonged dormancy period during the summer without a little help from their microbial friends.

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Giant crane fly larvae play an essential role in breaking down organic matter in the water.  Leaf litter degradation by shredders is a crucial component of the stream ecosystem, and giant crane fly larvae are one of the few insects that have found a way to digest leaf litter.   Maybe not surprisingly, the more they eat, the faster they grow.

Without them, there would be a heck of a lot more leaf litter around than we want!

Now that you know all about the ins and outs of our favorite crane fly make sure to stick up for them when you see them! Crane flies may look like giant mosquitoes, but they are just harmless herbivores. Next time you see one, think of all the leaf litter you would be trudging through without them!

7 thoughts on “The giant crane fly: Insect can shred too!”

  1. Great article! Loving the gym puns! Who knew that insects that would break down all this organic matter would be so big!?

  2. I think it’s so cool how crane flies are herbivores, yet they need gut microbes to help them break down their main source of food! It’s not surprising that the more they eat the more they grow because that seems to be the theme for most species, but it is great how they help out the environment with eating leaf liter.

  3. I wonder how they evolved to have those gut microbes, I mean what did they do when they didn’t have those gut microbes to help break down the food. Also, they are giant, what is the advantage to that? Also as larvae, do they have any defense mechanisms? Wow, this article got me curious about crane flies.

  4. I’ve never really thought about what craneflies eat; that’s awfully nice of them. Also, as I am a bug ambassador now, I have already informed my friend that the “biggest mosquito he’d ever seen” was just a cranefly and he shouldn’t kill them when he sees them. I can now also tell him how useful they are ecologically.

  5. I’m not surprised that another insect like isopteran requires a symbiotic relationship with microbes in their gut in order to get the most out of their preferred food source. I really wish that they could shred on the guitar, but shredding through leaves is good enough for me.

  6. Wow these crane flies are huge! I’m loving the pictures. Now, I’m interested seeing them shred these leaf litters in action. It’s also very cool to know that the crane flies have coevolved with the microbes to lend a helping hand!

  7. My parents actually saw one of these in our house the other day and mistook it for a giant mosquito. I let them know this was not the case!

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