Life on the Fast Track

Mayflies don’t have time

I once had to examine a fascinating German PhD-thesis; fascinating not just because of some real beauties of single-word monstrosities (you could find in the text words like “Windgeschwindigkeitsdurchschnittswerte” and “Trefferwahrscheinlichkeitsoptimierung”, but fascinating because of the topic: the visual behaviour of mayflies. Mayflies are an ancient order of insects and have nothing to do with ordinary flies, hence their spelling in a single word (if they were true flies one would spell them as “may flies”).

Mayflies are an ancient order of insects with an ancestry in the Carboniferous (320 million years ago). They are most closely related to dragonflies, but unlike them carry their wings over their backs and make up the order of “Ephemeroptera”. That name refers, of course, to the ephemeral appearance of mayflies, which are around as flying insects only for a very short time (hence their German name Eintagsfliegen, which means One-day-flies).

After an aquatic life of 1-3 years in streams, ponds and lakes, the usually 1-2 cm long larvae with three long tail filaments rather than two (characteristic of stoneflies) climb up a stem, log, or stone and moult into a winged form that looks very different from the larva (which is also often referred to as a ‘nymph’). For all other kinds of winged insects, the winged form is the developmental end-of-the-line and no further moults, and thus growth, take place. But mayflies are unique and moult once more even as a winged adult (actually I had better say ‘sub-adult’).

Since adult mayflies have degenerated mouthparts and cannot feed, they are in a hurry, in a hurry to seek a mate, to copulate and to propagate the species. Their emergence from the water is usually well co-ordinated, leading to sudden, ephemeral irruptions of enormous proportion. Males and females then engage in a kind of aerial courtship dance prior to copulation, for which most do not even have to stop flying.

Few mayflies live longer than two days as an adult and in many species the mating flight, copulation, fertilization and egg-laying, in fact the whole life is wrapped up in six hours. The ultimate must be a species by the beautiful name of Oligoneuriella rhenana. It does not even have time to undergo a proper final moult and sort of half-moulted takes to the air minutes after crawling out of the water. Its adult life lasts but 55-70 minutes. The expression “A whole life time” does take on a new dimension here, doesn’t it. And one is reminded of a delightful poem by Ringelnatz about a two day old methusalem mayfly that reminisces about the merry time of youth and passion such a long, long time ago (in the morning)!

EIN GANZES LEBEN (von Joachim Ringelnatz)

,,Weißt du noch”, so frug die Eintagsfliege
Abends, wie ich auf der Stiege
Damals dir den Käsekrümel stahl?”
Mit der Abgeklärtheit eines Greises
Sprach der Fliegenmann: ,,Gewiss, ich weiss es!”
Und er lächelte: ,,Es war einmal -”
,,Weisst Du noch”, so fragte weiter sie,
,,Wie ich damals unterm sechsten Knie
Jene schwere Bluwergiftung hatte?”-
,,Leider”, sagte halb verträumt der Gatte.
,,Und weisst du noch, wie ich, weil ich dir grollte,
Fliegenleim-Selbtsmord verüben wollte?-
Und wie ich das erste Ei gebar?-
,Weisst Du noch. wie es halb sechs Uhr war?-
Und wie ich in die Milch gefallen bin?-”
Fliegenmann gab keine Äntwort mehr,
Summte leise. müde vor sich hin:
,,Lang, lang ist’s her – ,,

A LIFETIME (free translation by V.B. Meyer-Rochow)

“Do you recall” an ageing lady mayfly reminisced one night
“when just above that willow tree we had that fight,
because you chased me much too hard?”
And with the wisdom of a saint
Old mayfly gent -his voice quite faint-
Replied “I do recall, I do recall, my love.
That was our start. . .”
“And you remember” she went on
“leg number six of mine was gone
as I felt something wrong with my anatomy?”
“It dawns on me, it dawns on me”
the mayfly husband nodded dreamily.
“And do you know when I was cross with you
and close to kill myself in sticky glue,
and how at six past eight a.m. this morn, o dear,
I nearly fell into that jug of beer
and how I later laid my little eggs all in a row?”
The mayfly man no longer listened clearly;
Too old and weak to talk he uttered merely,
“This morn – oh, what a long, long time ago”

relativity time biology age

Time flies fast!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2017.
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