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Ephemeroptera is a group of 2,000 insect species commonly known as mayfly. Ephemeroptera are aquatic insects that often go through many nymph stages (living in water) and two flying stages.



Adult mayflies have 2 pairs of wings that are held over their bodies when they are not flying. The front pair of wings is much longer than the back pair (which are tiny or absent in a few species). Mayflies have 2 or 3 long “tails” that extend from the tips of their abdomens. Mayfly adults do not have functional mouthparts. Young mayflies, called “naiads”, are fully aquatic.

They are flattened and have 3 hair-like tails on the tips of their abdomens, along with leafy gills all along the sides of their abdomens. Unlike adults, mayfly naiads have chewing mouthparts. As with all insects, mayflies have 6 legs, 3 body parts, and 2 antennae.

Immature stages have chewing mouthparts; adult mayflies do not feed and have non-functional mouthparts. Mayfly immatures are aquatic and feed by scavenging small pieces of organic matter such as plant material or algae and debris that accumulate on rocks or other substrates in streams. Most of the species in Texas prefer flowing or highly oxygenated water situations. A few species develop in lakes or ponds and their distribution in water is usually limited by oxygen content of the water.

Life Cycle : The first stage of the life of a mayfly is the nymph (larva), which not only looks very different from the adult, but lives in the water. When the nymphs hatch from the eggs, they are less than 1 mm long. They have no gills at first, and their body shape varies according to habitat. For example, those that burrow have more cylindrical bodies, whereas those that slide under rocks are flatter. Those in the genus Caenis crawl on mossy stones and vegetation, so they have short bodies with squat legs.

Mayfly larva

Mayfly larva

Ephemeroptera nymphs may grow to anywhere from 4 mm to 3 cm long. They are generally camouflaged against their background. The number of molts a nymph goes through on its way to becoming an adult does not depend on its nutrition, but the increase in size that comes with each molt does.

In older nymphs, gills are found in pairs on each segment of the abdomen . The gills extend from the sides of the body and are oval-shaped. These gills beat to control the flow of water through the body, which also controls the amount of oxygen and salt that flows through the body. Nymphs in still waters generally have larger gills, and those in running water have smaller gills; this allows the nymphs of each habitat to get their optimum flow of water.

Not only do the gills function in uptake of water, salt, and oxygen, but they also send water off at right angles to the body. This is used to mislead predators. If the water simply flowed out the back of the nymph’s body, predators would know that the nymph was sitting at the beginning of the stream. However, since they send water away from their bodies at several points, the nymphs are not as easy to track.

When it comes time for the last nymph stage to molt into a subimago (the first flying stage), the guts empty out and the mid-gut section fills with air. Often, many nymphs will then simultaneously let go of their hold on their anchor in the water and float up to the top. Once they reach the air, the cuticle splits open on the thorax and the wings come out. This is the time of greatest vulnerability in their lives as they float on the water before they are strong enough to fly.



The imago (the final adult stage) has shiny, hairless wings. The longer legs and tails allow for more rapid flight. The corrugation of the wings protects them by making them more flexible and therefore less vulnerable to wind damage. The imago mates and dies within a few hours to a day.

Economic Importance: Many northern lakes and rivers in both the United States support unbelievably large populations of mayflies. In some mayfly species, summer emergence of winged stages is a sudden and dramatic event that occurs almost simultaneously throughout the entire population. These mass emergences are often regarded as a major nuisance. The insects are attracted to city lights and blown inland by the wind. Their dead bodies pile up in drifts on porches and windowsills; they plaster car windshields and slicken highways.

Fact : The subimagos of mayflies are the only insects that molt when they have wings.
Mayflies are a favorite bait of fishermen, and many popular fishing “flies” are tied to resemble mayflies. Anglers have names for the stages — dun is the subimago and spinner is the imago.
Mayflies have paired genital openings. During copulation, the two penes of the male are inserted simultaneously into the two openings of the female. Sperm is transferred quickly and eggs are fertilized immediately.
A few species of mayflies reproduce parthenogenically — no males have ever been found.
Although most mayflies are herbivores, a few are predaceous — e.g. Siphloneuridae and Oligoneuriidae.
Adult mayflies do not feed. Their digestive system is filled with air, making them light enough to float.
In the Congo, there is one species of mayfly that excavates tunnels in fresh-water sponges.
Some mayfly species require up to four years to complete development. In that time they may molt more than 20 times.

Mayfly with eggs

Mayfly with eggs

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