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The Mighty Ant-Lion

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First written on March 04, 2005 for Science And Politics, then reposted on February 27, 2006 on Circadiana, and re-posted a few more times as I moved my blog around (the latest in 2009) a post about a childrens’ book and what I learned about it since.

When I was a kid I absolutely loved a book called “Il Ciondolino” by Ricardo Vamba – a book in two slim volumes for kids (how times change – try to publish a 200+ page book of dense text for children today!). I later found out that it was translated into English under the title The Prince And His Ants in 1910 (Luigi BERTELLI (M: 1858 or 1860 – 1920) (&ps: VAMBA) The Prince And His Ants [It-?]. Holt.(tr S F WOODRUFF) [1910] * Il Giornalino Di Gran Burrasca [It-?] (tr ?) [?] ) and was even The Nation’s Book of the Week on June 2nd 1910.

["Vamba" is the pseudonym of Italian fantasist Luigi Bertelli. The Prince and His Ants (1910) tells the tale of a boy who becomes an ant, and a girl who becomes a butterfly. The English translation by one Miss Woodruff was edited by Vernon Kellogg, an insect authority at Stanford University. Ninety interior illustrations are scientifically accurate.]

This book is hard to find – don’t even bother with Amazon – but my brother was persistent and after several weeks of patient searching he got a copy from Alibris and sent it to me. It is a story of a boy who wakes up one morning transformed into an ant. The book describes his travels and adventures in the world of the small. Of course, he meets a bunch of really cool creatures, like various wasps, and bees, and moths, and honey-ants, etc. But the one I remember the most was the ant-lion.

Photo by Jonathan Numer at Wikimedia Commons.

The antlion is actually quite pretty, yet short-lived, as an adult. But it is the larva that is really cool:

It digs a pit in the sand and hides underneath the sand right under the bottom of the pit. When an ant or some other insect comes by, it falls into the pit and has trouble climbing out of its steep walls again. The ant-lion lunges out of the sand (like a scene from “Tremors”) and eats the poor bug:

Now the really cool part: the volume of the pit is bigger when the antlion is hungrier (or so they say at this marvelous website that I highly recommend you browse around). But, hungry or not, the ant-lion digs a bigger pit when the moon is full. Nobody has any idea why that would be so. Here is a photograph (from the site I linked in the previous sentence) of a colony of ant-lions, each with its own little pit:

But here is the coolest part of all. If you take ant-lions out of the field and put them in little sandboxes in the laboratory and isolate them from any cues about the outside world they will still dig bigger pits roughly every four weeks – they have an internal lunar rhythm:

They have, somewhere in their brains, a lunar clock that tells them to dig larger pits whenever the moon is full even if they canot see the moon itself (e.g., on a dark cloudy night). If and when somebody figures out how this little brain works, I’ll be sure to tell you, but you may have to wait years for it – I don’t think anybody is even thinking about studying it right now.


G.J. Youthed, V.C. Moran, The lunar-day activity rhythm of myrmeleontid larvae, Journal of Insect Physiology,Volume 15, Issue 7, July 1969, Pages 1259-1271

Inon Scharf, Aziz Subach, Ofer Ovadia, Foraging behaviour and habitat selection in pit-building antlion larvae in constant light or dark conditions, Animal Behaviour, Volume 76, Issue 6, December 2008, Pages 2049-2057 (PDF)


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  1. 1. Lou Jost 2:12 pm 09/19/2011

    There is another cool thing ant-lions do. When something falls into its pit, the ant lion throws sand at it (by flicking its abdomen?), causing a mini-avalanche that drags the prey to its jaws!!!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Ed Rybicki 4:40 pm 09/19/2011

    Growing up in central Africa, it was part of everyone’s early childhood education to learn how to catch an ant-lion larva. It involved crouching down low or even lying down so as to get nice and close, and tickling the slope of a pit with a piece of grass, to imitate a struggling ant. Success was achieved when something vaguely furry would erupt from the bottom of the pit, and grab the grass – whereupon you would haul it out to take a look at it.

    It’s also something you teach your kids: very strange to see a whole family intently studying one tiny piece of sandy ground, but we natives know exactly what it going on…B-)

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  3. 3. the_science_goddess 11:14 pm 09/19/2011

    One of my favourite memories of being with my dad was learning about ant lions. He was an entomologist and when I was young, we would spend time in the driveway “teasing” them with little sticks and pebbles. He taught me a lot about observing the natural world. I miss him a lot…and the ant lions, too.

    Link to this

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