Photo of the Week – September 13, 2012

Antlion!  One of the most nightmarish creatures most people have never seen…

When dislodged from its trap, an antlion might sit still just long enough for a photo before backing down into the loose soil again.  You can click on the photo to see a sharper image.

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The antlion digs a cone-shaped hole in the soil and then buries itself beneath the point of the cone with only its fearsome mandibles showing.  When an unwary creature ventures too near the edge of the pit, it slips in the loose soil and falls down the slope toward the antlion.  The antlion gives the poor creature a paralyzing bite and then sucks the juices out of it.  If the antlion misses with its first bite or the creature manages to stop its slide down the slope, the antlion throws soil at it and knocks it back down toward its doom. 

Fortunately for us, antlions (actually the larvae of antlions) are only 1/2 inch long, and eat small invertebrates.  They tend to make their pits in loose dry soil – often around foundations of houses or other buildings these days.  Antlion adults look very different from their larvae, and resemble damselflies with clubbed antennae.

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Antlion pits around the base of our house.

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My son, Daniel, and I saw an adult antlion on our window screen the other day, so we decided to go hunting for the larvae.  It didn’t take long to find some pits along the foundation of our house, safely positioned in the dry rain shadow of the eaves.  We dropped a cucumber beetle into one and watched as it slid down to the bottom of the slop and then jerked violently as the antlion grabbed it. 

Later, we dug the antlion out of the ground and brought it inside so we could watch it more carefully for a few days.  (My wife doesn’t like to admit this, but she’s mellowed considerably over the years about keeping temporary “pets” in the house…)  We filled a bucket with loose dirt and put the antlion in to see if it would make itself at home.  By the next morning, there was a nice conical pit along the edge of the bucket.  So far, the antlion has eaten a pillbug (roly poly) and a millipede, though it took several tries before it was able to catch the millipede.

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Here’s a clearer look at the antlion – photographed in my homemade photo studio.

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It’s not hard to find information on anlions online, but one of the most comprehensive sites is Mark Swanson’s “The Antlion Pit“.  You can learn all about antlions, why they’re also called doodlebugs, and watch videos of many different behaviors.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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10 Responses to Photo of the Week – September 13, 2012

  1. Brodie says:

    What fun to see. On my farm we had many antlion cones, around machine sheds in the very fine soil beaten down by tractors and other equipment. I used to tease them by lightly touching a bit of straw in the cone and watch the antlion shovel dirt madly to catch the prey. Occasionally I’d gently lift one out to look at it, but always put it back, and watched it dig itself back into the cone and repair its sides. I think they are really pleasant little creatures.

  2. James C. Trager says:

    Interesting that it managed to stomach both a roly poly and a millipede, both avoided by many other predators in that size range (though in the Tropics, there are whole genera or groups of species within genera of ants that are specialist predators on these distateful critters).

  3. Becky says:

    Great way to open the eyes of any child by focusing on these small creatures….jaws and all! As a former educator I can appreciate the teachings of our natural world, even the “nightmarish creatures.”

    • James McGee says:

      I thought Chris might like to know that I read this blog post to my five year old son. He ate up every word. When I told him there was an Antlion in the first picture he said, “There isn’t a lion in that picture.” I kept reading to him and he was fascinated. I told him the Antlion was like the worm in Star Wars that ate Jabba the Hutt.

  4. melmannphoto says:

    Good close-ups, Chris. What type of lens are you using for those?

  5. James C. Trager says:

    Oh yeah, and … These are rather nightmarish, but have you seen Macrae’s tiger beetle larvae? The ancients must have gotten their concepts for the most grotesque of dragons from seeing those things!

  6. Karen Hamburhger says:

    Hey Chris..

    I have 97 or more ant lion cones around my house as we speak (counted them last weekend)!! One of the first insects (after spiders) that caught my intrest 25 years ago.

    Cool critters.

    I feed them ants!

    I have a problem with ants in my house and welcome them in my need to control them. they dont aliminate them…but they help!

    Great post!!! And apparently your wife is a saint!!!

    Karen

    • James C. Trager says:

      Karen – How could you?! :)

      • Karen Hamburhger says:

        OH James

        I love my ants but I have problem in my yard and home. ( I love them….thats why I have a problem) They are taking over. I would love to know who they are but I dont have the resorces to do that!

        HELP!!!

        Karen!

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