From a large distance tabanid flies may find their host animal by means of its shape, size, motion, odour, radiance and degree of polarization of host-reflected light. After alighting on the host, tabanids may use their mechano-, thermo-, hygro- and chemoreceptors to sense the substrate characteristics. Female tabanids prefer to attack sunlit against shady dark host animals, or dark against bright hosts for a blood meal, the exact reasons for which are unknown. Since sunlit darker surfaces are warmer than shady ones or sunlit/shady brighter surfaces, the differences in surface temperatures of dark and bright as well as sunlit and shady hosts may partly explain their different attractiveness to tabanids. We tested this observed warmth preference in field experiments, where we compared the attractiveness to tabanids (Tabanus tergestinus) of a warm and a cold shiny black barrel imitating dark hosts with the same optical characteristics. Using imaging polarimetry, thermography and Schlieren imaging, we measured the optical and thermal characteristics of both barrels and their small-scale models. We recorded the number of landings on these targets and measured the time periods spent on them. Our study revealed that T. tergestinus tabanid flies prefer sunlit warm shiny black targets against sunlit or shady cold ones with the same optical characteristics. These results support our new hypothesis that a blood-seeking female tabanid prefers elevated temperatures, partly because her wing muscles are more rapid and her nervous system functions better (due to faster conduction velocities and synaptic transmission of signals) in a warmer microclimate, and thus, she can avoid the parasite-repelling reactions of host animals by a prompt take-off.
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