Phantom Crane Fly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The phantom crane fly is a fascinating insect with unique characteristics that set it apart from other flies. Belonging to the small family Ptychopteridae, these insects have long legs and a distinct way of drifting through the air, making them appear and disappear in patches of light and shadow 1. This intriguing behavior earned them the “phantom” part of their name.

One common species of phantom crane fly is Bittacomorpha clavipes, which can often be found near water sources 1. Although similar in appearance to other crane flies, phantom crane flies are harmless and generally not harmful to grass or plants. In contrast, the larvae of some crane fly species are known for damaging grass by chewing through its roots, such as the European crane fly 2.

Phantom crane fly populations usually thrive in wetlands and marshy areas, contributing to their unique ecosystem. Adult crane flies have long and slender bodies that can grow quite large, measuring up to 1.2 inches 3. As you learn more about the phantom crane fly and its fascinating characteristics, you’ll be better prepared to spot them during your outdoor adventures.

Phantom Crane Fly Overview

Classification

Phantom Crane Flies are invertebrates that belong to the small family Ptychopteridae and are classified within the order Diptera. They share similarities with the Tipulidae family, also known as crane flies, but differ in their unique movements and coloration. The most common species is Bittacomorpha clavipes.

Range and Habitat

Phantom Crane Flies typically dwell in shaded, aquatic environments, such as swamps and stream edges. They can be found throughout North America, especially in regions with abundant vegetation and water sources.

Physical Appearance

  • Long legs: Phantom Crane Flies are known for their long, delicate legs, a feature they share with other crane flies.
  • Black and white coloration: Their distinctive black and white bands on their legs, and sometimes the body, set them apart from their relatives.

These physical characteristics make Phantom Crane Flies easily distinguishable from other crane flies. Their unique appearance and movements are what earned them the “phantom” moniker, as they drift through the air, appearing and disappearing in patches of light and shadow.

Life Cycle of Phantom Crane Flies

Eggs

Phantom crane fly eggs are laid in patches of light and shadow. This helps keep the eggs hidden from predators. The eggs are tiny and generally deposited near water sources.

Larvae and Pupae

After hatching from the eggs, the larvae are small and brown. They grow over time to become mature phantom crane fly larvae, with sizes between 25.5-32 mm (1-1.25 inches) long. An interesting fact about their respiration is that the larvae extract oxygen from water through their posterior spiracles.

The larvae then develop into gray to brown pupae, approximately 25 mm (1 inch) long. During the pupal stage, they do not feed.

Characteristics of larvae and pupae:

  • Larvae are small and brown initially
  • Mature larvae sizes: 1-1.25 inches long
  • Pupae sizes: 1 inch long
  • Pupae do not feed

Adults

Adult phantom crane flies have long legs and slim bodies, resembling that of a mosquito. However, they are much larger in size, with adults usually about 13 mm (0.5 inches) long. These crane flies are usually found around water.

Typical adult phantom crane fly features:

  • Mosquito-like appearance
  • Long legs
  • Slim bodies
  • About 0.5 inches long
  • Found near water sources
  • Harmless insects

Phantom Crane Flies vs. Mosquitoes

Phantom Crane Flies Mosquitoes
Larger in size Smaller in size
Harmless to humans Can cause diseases (malaria, dengue)
Resemble mosquitoes
Found near water

In conclusion, the life cycle of phantom crane flies consists of eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. These insects are not only harmless, but also play a crucial role in the ecosystem. Their unique appearance and behavior make them stand out and contribute to the diversity of insect life.

Unique Characteristics and Behaviors

Aposematic/Warning Coloration

Phantom crane flies have a unique appearance that can be described as a form of aposematic or warning coloration. This means they have distinct colors or patterns that help deter predators.

Trachea-Tarsomere

One of the most fascinating features of phantom crane flies is their trachea-tarsomere. The tracheae are tubes within their body that form part of their respiratory system. In phantom crane flies, these tubes extend down into each of the leg segments, called tarsomeres1. This unique adaptation allows for better oxygen distribution in their long legs.

Ballooning and Flight

Phantom crane flies are known for their mesmerizing flight patterns, often compared to a “flying snowflake.” They utilize a behavior called ballooning, similar to some spiders2. Ballooning involves using a parachute-like structure to drift through the air. This is possible due to the presence of the following features:

  • Long, fragile legs that act like parachutes
  • Delicate wings, allowing for slow flight and better control

The combination of these characteristics results in a unique, drifting flight pattern that looks as if they are suspended in air, much like a snowflake or a web-spinning spider.

Comparison of Phantom Crane Fly and Spiders Ballooning Behavior

Phantom Crane Fly Spiders
Primary Purpose Flight Dispersal
Parachute Structure Legs Silk Web
Flight Speed Slow Varies
Predators Birds, Bats Birds

Overall, the unique characteristics and behaviors of phantom crane flies make them an intriguing and captivating group of insects, displaying fascinating flight patterns and physiological adaptations.

Ecological Impact and Significance

Predators and Prey

The Phantom Crane Fly plays a role in the ecosystem as a prey species for animals such as birds and amphibians. It may also help control mosquito populations by feeding on their larvae, which helps maintain the balance in the ecosystem. For example, in the Rocky Mountains, animals such as birds, spiders, and larger insects prey on different species of crane flies.

Niche in the Ecosystem

Phantom Crane Flies (Family Ptychopteridae) primarily occupy wetland habitats, such as marshes and swamps, where they are able to thrive due to their specific physical and behavioral adaptations. These include:

  • Long legs: Allowing them to walk on water and avoid drowning
  • Appearance: Their “phantom” look helps them blend into their surroundings
  • Feeding habits: Feeding on mosquito larvae, controlling their population

Here’s a brief comparison of Phantom Crane Flies and their close relatives, the common Crane Flies:

Feature Phantom Crane Flies (Ptychoptera) Common Crane Flies (Tipulidae)
Habitat Wetlands: marshes, swamps Various: damp soil, woodland.
Appearance “Phantom” look, patchy wings. Clear wings, V-shaped.
Feeding habits Mosquito larvae Plant material, thistle seeds

The ecological impact of Phantom Crane Flies (Family Ptychopteridae) is noteworthy due to their specific niche in the ecosystem. They serve as both predators to mosquito larvae and prey to various animals, while their unique appearance and behavior allow them to occupy a specific habitat and contribute to the overall balance of their ecosystem.

Additional Information

Evolution and Genetic Diversity

Phantom crane flies belong to the small family Ptychopteridae, which consists of only three genera1. Bittacomorpha clavipes is a common species of phantom crane fly1. These flies are named after their long legs and their unique behavior of drifting through the air, appearing and disappearing in patches of light and shadow1.

Features of phantom crane flies:

  • Belong to family Ptychopteridae1
  • Have long legs1
  • Drift through the air1

Further Study

Although there is limited information on the evolution and genetic diversity of phantom crane flies, further study in this area could uncover more details about their origins and unique characteristics. As a starting point, researchers could investigate the EOL, Wikipedia, and ITIS resources.

Research topics of interest:

  • Investigation of phantom crane fly genetics
  • Analysis of phantom crane fly behavior
  • Comparison of different species within the Ptychopteridae family

A comparison table can be a useful tool to outline differences between phantom crane flies and other closely related species.

Feature Phantom Crane Fly Similar Species
Family Ptychopteridae Col, etc.
Genera 3 na
Long Legs Yes Yes/No
Drifting Behavior Yes Yes/No

In conclusion, understanding the unique characteristics and behavior of phantom crane flies, as well as the family Ptychopteridae, requires further study. Accessing available resources and conducting comparative research can provide valuable insights into this fascinating insect.

Footnotes

  1. Ptychopteridae Family Description 2 3 4 5 6 7

  2. Spider Web Ballooning

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

what is this cool bug from MN
Location: MN
July 18, 2011 7:04 am
I have seem 2 of these bugs now in MN
that fly through the air with their legs spread out and are quite cool looking. I have searched and searched on the internet and can’t seemto figure our what it is. can you help me?
Becky
Signature: Bugs

Phantom Crane Fly

Hi Becky,
This very distinctive creature is a Phantom Crane Fly.

Letter 2 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: insect identification
Location: central New Jersey
April 22, 2015 7:38 am
I live in New Jersey and I want to know the name of an insect with a skinny body and black and white striped legs. The legs look as if they are lit up
Signature: Don’t Bug me!

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

This distinctive Crane Fly is commonly called a Phantom Crane Fly, a name that refers to the appearing and disappearing act that occurs when it flies feebly from sun to shade, an optical illusion created because of the boldly striped legs.

Letter 3 – Phantom Crane Fly

 


Hi Mr. Bugman!
I hope you can open this attachment and view this bug and let me know what it is…it’s making crazy, cause I can’t find out on my own…we’ve lived here for 8 yrs. and last year was the first year they appeared…i have a close up picture on a white background if you think you can analyze easier. These guys appear like they are floating or swimming underwater rather that flying…if you can let me know if the picture is good enough i’d appreciate it very much!

This is a Phantom Crane Fly, Bittacomorpha clavipes. Your description of their etherial manner of flight is quite accurate.

Letter 4 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Wingless Bug that Flies with it’s legs.
Hi Bugman,
How are you? I am a new resident living in Georgia State, where there used to be farms out in the country. Over the weekend i found 2 strage bugs. One was at a relative’s home north of Lake Lanier, with info from your site i was able to find its name… the extremely bright red Velvet Ant. The other i found at my home, its a large 1.5 inch fuzzy grey mosquito body, with spider looking legs that had a section of it covered in a velvet. It was on a wall, when it spread its leg and jumped off, it could glide vertical, side ways as it pleased. I caught it, put it in a cup to take a pic then released it, and it just spred its legs at the top of the cup and flew motionless all the way over to my neighbours yard. Here is a pic enclosed. Thanks for the wonderful site with pics and info about all the beautiful and strange bugs :o)
Chad
Gwinnett, GA.

Hi Chad,
Your mystery insect is a Phantom Crane Fly, Bittacomorpha clavipes. Your are correct in that it flies with its legs. The swollen tarsi catch air currents. Your specimen has lost two legs. The coloration helps the insect to vanish in the shade, hence the name Phantom. It is usually found near moist woods and stream margins.

Letter 5 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: What is this?
Location: Newfoundland, Canada
August 6, 2012 2:15 pm
What is this? Photographed in central Newfoundland, Canada in late July.
Signature: JC

Phantom Crane Fly

Hi JC,
This amazing creature is a Phantom Crane Fly, a species that BugGuide indicates is found near  “Swamps and similar wetlands.”

Letter 6 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Subject: Fredericton
Location: Bar Harbor, Maine
October 8, 2014 1:16 pm
Sailing along in the north end of Frenchmans Bay (Bar Harbor) in Maine last week, we met this beautiful flying insect. I see that others have already identified it as a phantom crane fly, but I thought the photo I got of it would be of some use and enjoyment. It landed on our wire rigging and stayed for about an hour. The large thorax looks like a backpack. Note the thin, feathery antennae.
Signature: David Coombs

Hi Dave,
The Phantom Crane Fly is surely an ethereal creature.  Thanks for sending us your images.

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Letter 7 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: Unknown insect
Location: Ronald Twp, Ionia Cnty, Michigan
June 5, 2015 5:40 pm
We live on a small lake , located in the center part of Michigan.
Can you help me with this incects identification.
I have attached photo.
Signature: Terry Mcpherson

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Terry,
This amazing creature is a harmless Phantom Crane Fly,
Bittacomorpha clavipes.  We will be postdating your submission to go live next week while we are away from the office.

Letter 8 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: Dragon fly or Crane Fly?
Location: Denton, MD
July 4, 2015 5:17 pm
After a short rainfall, this guy was bouncing around our door. We do have a garden pond and a river 2streets over. Never seen one with black & whitesteipes legs before.
Signature: Leslie

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Leslie,
Your Phantom Crane Fly image is quite nice.  The bold markings cause the Phantom Crane Fly to appear and disappear when flying through dappled light.  Your image is a nice example of Compartmentalized Space.

Letter 9 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: Dragon fly like insect
Location: Campobello Island, NB, Canada
August 24, 2015 2:17 pm
I found that little thing on the kitchen counter. Looks somewhat like a dragon fly. Was waiving it’s legs in the air as if saying hello.
Nearly invisible as it flew away outside.
Black and white legs.
Signature: Bea

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Bea,
Because of its dramatically striped legs, the Phantom Crane Fly seems to appear and disappear as it flies through the dappled lighting that characterizes its typical habitat.

Letter 10 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: Beautiful black and white 6 legger
Location: N.Carolina
June 2, 2016 8:06 am
A friend in N.Carolina asked me if I could figure out who this guy is and I am having no luck. Isn’t he beautiful?
Signature: Eileen

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Eileen,
This delicate insect is a Phantom Crane Fly.

Letter 11 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject: Weird bug!!
Location: NS, Canada
June 4, 2016 10:55 am
It flies in the weirdest way – hovers? Nothing like I’ve seen before!
Signature: Chelsea

Phantom Crane Fly
Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Chelsea,
The black and white markings of the Phantom Crane Fly allow it to appear and disappear as it languidly flies in sun dappled shade, hence the common name Phantom Crane Fly.  This is the second image we posted of this species today, and the previous posting was the first report we have received of the species this year.

Letter 12 – Phantom Crane Fly

 

Subject:  Black and white bug
Geographic location of the bug:  Bradford, Ontario, Canada
Date: 09/07/2018
Time: 11:07 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Trying to figure out what this bug is that I found outside my work.
How you want your letter signed:  Rachel

Phantom Crane Fly

Dear Rachel,
This distinctive insect is a Phantom Crane Fly.  According to BugGuide the habitat is:  “Swamps and similar wetlands.”

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

4 thoughts on “Phantom Crane Fly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. My sister and I were outside talking yesterday when this weird looking bug flew in between us. It was black and white striped and floated like a round coin. Truly amazing!

    Reply

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