Speaking of astonishment, I learned something new last weekend, and I love learning new things, especially things which remind me of how strange and wonderful the world is.
Have you ever heard of an ant lion or antlion?
I was out tracking with the lovely Channel Islands Tracking Team (if you live near Ventura, CA and want to learn how to track animals for fun, look them up). We were under a tagged-up bridge, in a dry river bed. Someone pointed out a hole or divot in the sand and quizzed us: what made the hole? I had no idea. It was a divot that could have been made by a big man’s thumb. I might think it was made by dripping water, if there was ever any water anywhere in this dry land.
The answer was “ant lion” — and I was the only one among them who did not know the answer. Ant lion??? It was such as strange conjunction of terms (see jackalope) that I thought they were pulling my leg. When I got home and checked the Internets, I realized that, as always, truth is stranger than fiction.
The name ant lion is a simple translation of their genus name, Myrmeleon— “ant-lion”. Ant lion because they eat ants rather fiercely. This activity, and so the name, only applies to the larval stage of the insect. The larvae are also sometimes called “doodlebugs” in North America because of the linear, wandering trails they leave in the sand when not killing ants. Ant lions are found all over the world, in any region which has a dry, warm climate–and sandy soil.
Dry sand is necessary for their predation style. They dig holes in which to capture their prey. The hole I saw, like the hole above, is called a lion ant trap. (And a wicked trap it is! Arrggg matey!)
What dug the hole? This:
So, this creature digs sand pits and hides in the bottom of them waiting for a hapless ant to wander by. The ant slips on the crumbling edge of the pit and tumbles in. The ant lion is waiting in hiding at the bottom and may grab the ant when it first falls. If the ant is lucky enough to regain its feet and start out of the hole, the ant lion kicks sand at it, barraging the ant with heavy fire until it slides back down to the bottom of the death pit and is caught in those fearsome pincher jaws. There is no escape from the ant lion.
Cunning. Efficient. Voracious. This is the ant lion. This is a baby ant lion, the larval stage. It makes you shudder to think what it’s like when it’s grown up, right?
Behold the adult ant lion:
It looks like a damselfly or dragonfly but is not related to either. The adult ant lion is sometimes called an antlion lacewing. They are not much seen by humans, because despite those beautiful wings, they are weak fliers, and mostly lurch around in the bushes at night trying to find another bumbling antlion, so they can mate. In the daylight hours they rest on branches, where they are well camouflaged.
From pinchered, death pit-digging predator to delicate, bumbling, romance-seeking nectar drinker. You just never know where life will take you.
Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for all of the photographs in this post.