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Mayflies On Assignment

Mayflies On Assignment

Mayflies
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.




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Photo captions by
John L. Eliot




Against All Odds
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Text and photographs by József L. Szentpéteri



With just hours to live, these swarming insects on Hungary's Tisza River have only one thing on their minds.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

We call it Tiszavirágzás, or Tisza blooming. Every year from late spring to early summer, a natural spectacle transforms Hungary's Tisza River. Villagers come to marvel at the "flowers" blooming on the river's surface—millions of long-tailed mayflies. Rising in huge clouds, they take flight, reproduce, and perish, all in just a few hours.

My father, who grew up in a village not far from the river, often told me how the fishermen and ferrymen seemed to know from experience when the mayflies would appear. I sought out those people to pinpoint the exact place and time to photograph the sudden mayfly masses.

To keep alert for erupting mayflies, I enlisted several spotters armed with cell phones.

* * * * * *

The "ephemeron," Aristotle called the short-lived mayfly, which numbers 2,000 species worldwide. With males measuring up to five inches from head to tail, the Tisza's Palingenia longicauda is Europe's largest mayfly.

Shortly after mating, females lay eggs on the river's surface. The eggs drift to the bottom and after 45 days hatch into larvae, which dig tunnels forming dense colonies up to 400 per square foot. After three years larvae break for the surface where females molt once and males shed twice: first into a brief subadult stage then again minutes later into adulthood. After both sexes have fully matured, mayflies have roughly three hours before they die.

* * * * * *

During the mating period the river's surface explodes to life. Adult males flutter above the water, their wings a whir. There is no courtship in the mayfly repertoire. Reproduction is often a forcible act with up to 20 males simultaneously going after a lone female. An eager male might also lie in wait atop the skin of a female that has yet to shed.

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VIDEO Photographer and biologist József Szentpéteri talks about what happens when mayflies, during their fleeting life cycle, swarm into town.

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A hungry kingfisher surrounded by mayflies makes a colorful e-greeting.




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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Today, Hungary's Tisza River and its tributaries are the only place in the world where you can see the spectacular swarms of long-tailed mayflies, Palingenia longicauda. But a century ago the insects flourished in Europe's lowland rivers (except those in the Mediterranean and Scandinavian regions). So what caused them to disappear? Ecologists say it was a combination of water pollution from heavy industries and riverbank re-engineering, which destroyed the mayfly larvae's natural habitats. After communist factories closed in the early 1990s, many rivers in Eastern Europe experienced a drop in pollution levels. Efforts are now being made to restore these once-tainted rivers: One strategy involves harvesting hibernating eggs from the Tisza, then transplanting them into other European rivers. Some conservationists, however, feel that reintroduction efforts should be secondary to keeping the mayflies that already exist on the Tisza healthy.

—Julie Cederborg

Did You Know?


Related Links
Mayfly Central
www.entm.purdue.edu/entomology/research/mayfly/mayfly.html
Purdue University's entomology department offers information about the taxonomy, ecology, behavior, and life history of the mayfly—primarily the species in North America.


Earthlife
www.earthlife.net/insects/ephemer.html
Read a detailed description of the mayfly's fleeting life cycle.


Hungarian Online Resources
www.duna.org
Find out more about Hungary's Tisza River, where the long-tailed mayfly lives, and the tragic pollution accidents in 2000 that killed over 1,300 tons (1,200 metric tons) of fish and threatened the mayfly.

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Bibliography
Hutchins, Ross E. The Mayfly. Addison-Wesley, 1970.

Kriska, G., G. Horvath, and S. Andrikovics. "Why do mayflies lay their eggs en masse on dry asphalt? Water-imitating polarized light reflected from asphalt attracts Ephemeroptera," Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 201, Iss. 15 (1998), 2273-86.

"Safe Operation of Mining Activities: A Follow-up to Recent Mining Accidents," Commission of the European Communities, 2000.

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NGS Resources
Jacobi, Elizabeth P. "Hungary, a Kingdom Without a King: A Tour from Central Europe's Largest Lake to the Fertile Plains of the Danube and the Tisza," National Geographic (June 1932), 691-728.

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