The unmistakeable pits created by an ant lions. (Photo by Ed McMackin)

The unmistakeable pits created by an ant lions. (Photo by Ed McMackin)

Out There: Tale of a Lion

‘Ant lions play a role in nature’s dynamic balance.’

By Ed McMackin, biologist by profession and naturalist by nature

If someone tells you there is a lion lurking about you, you might think of mountain lions (cougars) or that a lion escaped from a zoo. But, there are “lions” hiding out nearby in secluded spots! The dry conditions have been favourable to this creature’s habit of waiting in the sand for unsuspecting prey. This lion gets its name from the odd eating habits of its young.

One of the most seldom noticed insects is the ant lion. I can hear you say, “What’s that?” You are probably familiar with dragonflies and, the related and very similar, damselflies. Those flying insects with, long, slender bodies and shimmering wings are not all just that. The creature I am thinking of is the ant lion adult, whose baby has no resemblance to the mother, or the father. And, neither does it have the gentle disposition of its parents. You wouldn’t even expect there is any connection. That so different 12 millimetre baby, also called “doodlebug”, hangs out in dry sandy spots.

Their practice is to construct a funnel-shaped pit trap in the sand, or some other fine, dry material. They form this funnel-shaped pit by burrowing backward into the sand and then casting out the sand, with quick repeated flicks of the head. In a short time, they have a pit where they lay hidden at the bottom waiting for some unsuspecting ant to come along and slide into the trap. The struggles of the ant to get up the unstable slopes of the pit signal the ant lion to do some more “sandblasting”, which usually brings the ant to the bottom. It is then grasped in the strong pincers of the nymph ant lion and pulled under. While photographing the pits, I actually saw an ant get caught.

Like big lions, certainly not so dramatically, but in a small way, like so many other creatures, ant lions play a role in nature’s dynamic balance. So, there is a bit about our local lion population. If you look, you might find some of them hanging around your yard. You may even get to see some ant lion antics!

For more information, Ed McMackin can be reached at 250-866-5747.

READ MORE: Out There: A Flower Deception

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