In the Gorge with Kloof Conservancy — Antlions

2018-06-12 06:00
PHOTO: SuppliedGetting to know the Antlions.

PHOTO: SuppliedGetting to know the Antlions.

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WE all too often focus on the “big things” when visiting nature reserves and game parks, and forget those smaller creatures which can be just as fascinating and interesting if you take the trouble to look carefully.

One fascinating group of insects which is easy to find and can provide much interest in observing them at work are the Antlions. Antlion is a name applied to a group of about 2 000 species of insects in the family Myrmeleontidae. The most well-known genus is Myrmeleon (“antlion”). Strictly speaking, the term “antlion” applies to the larval form of the members of this family. The antlion larva is a ferocious looking creature with a robust plump abdomen tapering towards its end.

The winged form of the adults are sometimes called “antlion lacewings”.

In our area, the average sized larva digs a pit about 2 cm deep and 4 cm wide at the edge. Having marked out the chosen site by a circular groove, the antlion larva starts to crawl backwards, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil. By the aid of one front leg it places consecutive heaps of loosened particles upon its head, then with a smart jerk throws each little pile clear of the scene of operations. As it slowly moves round and round, the pit gradually gets deeper and deeper, until the slope angle reaches the critical angle of repose (that is, the steepest angle the sand can maintain). When the pit is completed, the larva settles down at the bottom, buried in the soil with only the jaws projecting above the surface, often in a wide-opened position on either side of the very tip of the cone.

When an ant or other small insect accidentally steps inside the rim of the pit, it will slip on the soft sand particles on the side of the pit and fall to the bottom. The unfortunate victim usually becomes impaled by the antlion’s piercing mandibles. But if it tries to escape, the antlion will flick sand and shower the prey. As this storm of loose sand falls on the slope of the pit, it speeds up the treadmill effect. Eventually the prey tumbles to the bottom towards the waiting antlion.

You will find antlion traps throughout the reserve, particularly at the bottom of cliff faces where the sand is dry and protected by the cliff overhangs.

— Kloof Conservancy.

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