Owlfly (Ascalaphidae)

Last updated: January 18, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Darkdiamond67/Shutterstock.com

Adult owlflies can capture prey while flying in the air.

Owlfly (Ascalaphidae) Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Arthropoda
Class
Insecta
Order
Neuroptera
Family
Ascalaphidae

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Owlfly (Ascalaphidae) Conservation Status


Owlfly (Ascalaphidae) Facts

Prey
Insects
Main Prey
Insects
Name Of Young
Larvae
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
Adult owlflies can capture prey while flying in the air.
Most Distinctive Feature
Owlflies have large bulging eyes
Distinctive Feature
Long antennae with clubbed ends
Wingspan
3 inches
Habitat
Tropical, temperate regions
Predators
Insectivorous animals like the giant anteater, opossum, geckos, frogs, lizards, bats, spiders
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Nocturnal
  • Crepuscular
  • Solitary
Favorite Food
Butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, and other flying insects.
Type
Insect
Common Name
Owlfly
Special Features
Owlflies have large bulging eyes on their head
Number Of Species
450
Location
Worldwide

Owlfly (Ascalaphidae) Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Black
Skin Type
Exoskeleton
Length
1.5–2 inches
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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The name “owlfly” applies to any member of the large Ascalaphidae family of insects. They have long slender bodies with membranous wings. The appearance of the owlfly is similar to that of the dragonfly, and both insects are often mistaken for each other. The larvae of this insect are ambush predators typically found on trees or hiding under leaf litter. Adults are predators as well, and they feed on other insects. Although they’re native to the tropics, owlflies are now very common in the southern area of the United States.

Owlfly Species, Types, and Scientific Names

Insects in the family Ascalaphidae are referred to as owlflies. There are more than 450 species of insects in this family, and they’re all known for their large bulging eyes, which look like owl eyes. This is the origin of their common name. Owlflies belong to the Neuroptera order of insects which includes over 3,000 species of net-winged insects, including lacewings, antlions, and mantidflies. 

The name “Ascalaphidae” was first introduced in 1842 by Jules Pierre Rambur, a French entomologist. Ascalaphidae is from the Greek word “askalaphos,” meaning a kind of owl. The origin of the name is rooted in Greek mythology, and it refers to the god of the underworld, which was transformed into an owl. 

There are about over 450 species in the owlfly family. Some of the most popular ones include: 

  • Ululodes quadripunctatus
  • Iranoidricerus iranensis
  • Libelloides macaronus
  • Uluodes floridanus
  • Ogcogaster segmentator
  • Albardia furcata
  • Melambrotus zulu
  • Bubopsis andromach

Owlfly Appearance — How To Identify An Owlfly

Owlfly 1
One of the owlfly’s most distinctive features is its long antennae. These antennae are almost as long as their wings.

©Darkdiamond67/Shutterstock.com

Owlflies are often mistaken for dragonflies because they have long slender bodies and transparent membranous wings. Despite their similarities, both insects are not related. Owlflies belong to a family of insects known as the lacewings. Although giant lacewings like the owlfly are superficially similar to the dragonflies, they tend to fold their wings over the body when they’re at rest instead of spreading them out as dragonflies do. The veins on their wings also tend to fork at the margin. 

One of the most distinctive features of the owlfly is its long antennae, which are almost as long as its wings. This long antenna has a large bi-colored club at the tip. This type of antennae is also absent in dragonflies, which means it can be used to identify the insect. The only owlfly family member with short antennae is the Brazilian Albardia furcata. However, even though the antennae of this species are short, it still has a prominent club similar to its other relatives. 

Excluding their antennae, most owlflies are about 1.5 inches long. They have large bulgy eyes, and their heads look like a butterfly’s. The larvae are not pleasant looking, thanks to their distinct heads and enormous mandibles. They have a flattened, segmented body with a dull color that helps to camouflage their appearance against sand, leaves, and other debris. The sides of their body tend to have tiny finger-like projections that give their body a spiky look. 

The male owlfly stands out from his female counterpart with its black bristles near the base of its slender abdomen. Female owlflies have more prominent abdomens with dark spots widely spread near the tip of their wings. 

Owlfly Habitat — Where To Find Owlfly?

Owlflies are found all over the world. However, they’re more common in warm, temperate, and tropical regions. In the United States, adult owlflies are mostly found in the Southwestern and Southern United States. Like many insects, they are mostly seen in summer. 

Adult owlflies are mostly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or nocturnal (active at night). Many owlfly species are attracted to lights. They lay eggs on twigs, from where they emerge as larvae. The larvae hide in trees, leaf litter, and other protected places from where they can ambush insects. 

Owlfly — Evolution and History

Insects are among the earliest organisms to colonize terrestrial habitats. They evolved about 480 million years ago, around the same time as the first terrestrial plants. The oldest fossil of an insect ever found dates back to about 400 million years ago. 

Although the entire insect class evolved several million years earlier, the insects in the order Neuroptera only appeared towards the end of the Permian Period. This was around 250 million years ago. One of the oldest fossils of a member of this order was of the Permithonidae, a clade of lacewings whose fossil was discovered in the Tunguska Basin of Siberia. The different families of lacewings evolved from this group at various points in geologic history.

The osmylids (giant lacewings) family is among the oldest families of the Neuroptera order. This group evolved during the Jurassic or Early Cretaceous. The true antlions (family Myrmeleontidae) are the ancestors of modern-day owlflies. They evolved into the Palparidae, which subsequently evolved into the Ascalaphidae and Stilbopterygidae families. The oldest fossil of an owlfly ever found dates back to the Oligocene Epoch. Scientists have been unable to classify the specific subfamily of this fossilized insect found in baltic amber. 

Owlfly Diet — What Does the Owlfly Eat?

Owlflies are not only similar in appearance to dragonflies but also feed the same way. Both insects are insectivores, with the owlfly having a more ferocious feeding habit. 

What Eats Owlflies?

Owlflies are probably prey for insectivorous animals like the giant anteater, opossum, geckos, frogs, and lizards. Bats, spiders, and birds such as nightingales may also prey on them. The insect has several interesting adaptations to evade predators. When disturbed, some species of this insect can release a strong chemical to deter predators. They’re also great at camouflage. Some species raise their abdomen when resting, so they’ll look like broken twigs. A few species can also release a flap on their thorax that reveals a contrasting patch of color which may help them startle predators. 

What Do Owlflies Eat?

Both adult and larval forms of owlflies are predators. Adults are notable aerial predators. They’re impressive fliers capable of catching and preying on other insects while flying in the air. Owlflies are among the few groups of insects that can exhibit this highly specialized behavior. Their oversized mandibles mean they can prey on many insects, including butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, and other flying insects. 

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About the Author

Abdulmumin is a pharmacist and a top-rated content writer who can pretty much write on anything that can be researched on the internet. However, he particularly enjoys writing about animals, nature, and health. He loves animals, especially horses, and would love to have one someday.

Owlfly (Ascalaphidae) FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are owlflies dangerous?

Owlflies are similar to dragonflies; like dragonflies, they don’t bite or attack humans. They’re not considered dangerous. Instead, the insect is beneficial in gardens because it can help get rid of flying insect pests.

Is an owlfly a fly?

No, owlflies are not flies (order Diptera). They are carnivorous insects in the order Neuroptera.

What do owlflies do?

Adult owlflies and their larvae are predators that capture and feed on other insects. They play an essential role in the world by maintaining a natural ecological balance and also help in controlling pest insects by eating them.

Where do owlflies live?

Owlflies are found in tropical and temperate regions.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Australian Museum, Available here: https://australian.museum/learn/animals/insects/life-history-of-an-owlfly/
  2. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/insect
  3. Missouri Department of Conservation, Available here: https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/owlflies
  4. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owlfly

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