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J Exp Biol. 1998 Aug;201(Pt 15):2273-86.

Why do mayflies lay their eggs en masse on dry asphalt roads? Water-imitating polarized light reflected from asphalt attracts Ephemeroptera.

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  • 1Group for Methodology in Biology Teaching, Eötvös University, Budapest, Hungary.


We report on dry asphalt roads acting as 'mayfly traps'; that is, they lure swarming, mating and egg-laying mayflies in large numbers. To explain this surprising behaviour, we performed multiple-choice experiments with Ephemeroptera in the field, and measured and compared the reflection-polarization characteristics of an asphalt road and a mountain creek from which mayflies emerge. We show here that Ephemeroptera can be deceived by and attracted to dry asphalt roads because of the strongly horizontally polarized light reflected from the surface. Asphalt surfaces can mimic a highly polarized water surface to Ephemeroptera. The darker and smoother the asphalt surface, the higher is the degree of polarization of reflected light and the more attractive is the road to mayflies. We show that mayflies detect water by means of polarotaxis; that is, on the basis of the partially and horizontally polarized reflected light. Asphalt roads are excellent markers for swarming Ephemeroptera because of their conspicuous elongated form; the sky above them is usually open, which is the prerequisite of mayfly mating, and the higher temperature of the asphalt prolongs the reproductive activity of mayflies. These additional factors enhance the attractiveness of asphalt roads to swarming mayflies. Thus, asphalt roads near ephemeropteran emergence sites (lakes, rivers and creeks) are a great danger for mayflies, because eggs laid on the asphalt inevitably perish. Asphalt roads can deceive and attract mayflies en masse like the ancient tar pits and asphalt seeps or the recent crude or waste oil lakes deceive, lure and trap polarization-sensitive water-seeking insects in large numbers.

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