Velvet Photomorphs

The velvet ants of the family Mutillidae are a diverse but relatively little-studied group of insects. As well as their often retiring habits, studies of this family are hindered by the difficulty of associating sexes. Females are wingless and superficially resemble hairy ants. Males are usually winged and resemble more typical wasps (there is a small handful of species in which both sexes are flightless). What we do know of velvet ant diversity suggests a high level of endemicity with different regions each having their own distinct assemblages of genera and species. In North America, one of the most diverse recognised genera is Photomorphus.

Female Photomorphus banksi, copyright Cotinis.

Species of Photomorphus are found across much of the United States and Mexico, being most diverse in the arid regions of the south-west (Brabant et al. 2010). The genus is currently divided between three subgenera, each originally described from males. Males have round, slightly protruding eyes, a more or less petiolate metasoma with a distinct constriction between the first and second segments, and a pair of ridges on the mesosternum behind the procoxae. The genus is currently divided between three subgenera: Photomorphus, Photomorphina and Xenomorphus. Males of subgenus Photomorphus have a distinct space between the mesocoxae and bidentate mandibles whereas Photomorphina males have the mesocoxae closely placed and tridentate mandibles (Manley & Pitts 2002). Females of Photomorphus have dense, silver setae on the mesosoma whereas females of Photomorphina have a less hairy mesosoma and typically have a band of plumose setae along the dorsal hind margin of the second metasomal segment (Brabant et al. 2010). The third subgenus, Xenomorphus, is known from a single Mexican species only and its female remains unidentified.

Male Photomorphus paulus, copyright J. C. Jones.

Photomorphus is part of a lineage of nocturnal mutillids common in arid regions of North America. Velvet ants develop as nest parasites of other wasps and bees; Photomorphus species are presumably no exception but their hosts are as yet unknown. A phylogenetic analysis of the North American nocturnal mutillids by Pitts et al. (2010) supported recognition of the group as a single clade but identified Photomorphus itself as polyphyletic. A clade corresponding to the subgenus Photomorphus was recovered but Photomorphina species were divided between multiple separate clades. This included the species P. myrmicoides which Brabant et al. (2010) had suggested should be moved from Photomorphina to subgenus Photomorphus. Females of P. myrmicoides have hair like that of subgenus Photomorphus but differs in the structure of the pygidial plate, a hairless area at the end of the metasoma. In the strict subgenus Photomorphus, this plate is completely smooth and shiny; in Photomorphina and P. myrmicoides, it is rough or marked by ridges. Clearly a reclassification of Photomorphus is on the cards but we are yet to see when we have the confidence to enact it.


Brabant, C. M., K. A. Williams & J. P. Pitts. 2010. True females of the subgenus Photomorphina Schuster (Hymenoptera: Mutillidae). Zootaxa 2559: 58–68.

Manley, D. G., & J. P. Pitts. 2002. A key to genera and subgenera of Mutillidae (Hymenoptera) in America north of Mexico with description of a new genus. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 11 (1): 72–100.

Pitts, J. P., J. S. Wilson & C. D. von Dohlen. 2010. Evolution of the nocturnal Nearctic Sphaerophthalminae velvet ants (Hymenoptera: Mutillidae) driven by Neogene orogeny and Pleistocene glaciation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56: 134–145.


  1. Weird name! What's the etymology? ("Abdomen shaped like a light-bulb" comes to mind, but that's just to silly to be correct!)

    1. I honestly don't know. Photopsis is an older genus name among mutillids, and one that has been used as the basis for a number of derivatives, so "shaped like Photopsis" seems a likely suggestion. No derivation was originally given for Photopsis but I suspect it refers to the animal's bright, shining coloration.

    2. From this passage, presumably?
      "The selection of the name Agama used for a genus erected for the reception of those species characterized by the more or less shining unicolorous body, unusually large eyes and ocelli, and hyaline wings was unfortunate, as it was preoccupied in the Reptilia, a fact over-looked at the time. The name Photopsis is therefore substituted. Of this genus the males only are known, and it is possible that the females, which have thus far escaped the observations of collectors, are larviform and subterraneous in their habits."

      The previous name would have meant "without wives". Which seems like an odd thing to define them by, as the entomologists knew they probaly did have females somewhere.

      Apparently they are attracted to lights at night.

    3. Yes, that's what I was looking at. I'm certainly confused by what the author meant by 'larviform', as I can't think of any mutillid that would suggest that description. But then, I'm thinking of the fully larviform females of some beetles and moths. Presumably something less extreme was intended here.

  2. Thanks! Plausible suggestion (and the abdomens in your pictures look more like ice-cream cones than light bulbs anyway).

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