A Blog Around The Clock

The Mighty Ant-Lion

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGFirst written on March 04, 2005 for Science And Politics, then reposted on February 27, 2006 on Circadiana, 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.
i-98d530c97a4bffdd5c38341ec400ee15-a1 Ciondolino.jpg

["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.

The antlion is actually quite pretty, yet short-lived, as an adult. But it is the larva that is really cool:
i-97dfab6df3530d888cd13d39aafe1e8e-a2 Ant Lion.jpg
It digs a pit in the send 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 scence from “Tremors”) and eats the poor bug:
i-d889b237f58e02381e5868ceb41b4f2d-a3 Ant Lion Funnel.jpg
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 of a colony of ant-lions, each with its own little pit:
i-1c1295f141079af8c689ceeedf3dc74e-a4 Ant Lion Photo.jpg
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:
i-d40f83db952823c6ebf5b345e3272e5f-a5 Ant Lion Pit Size.jpg
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 all on my blog, but you may have to wait years for it – nobody is even thinking about studying it right now.


  1. #1 Laelaps
    July 30, 2007

    This post actually reminded me of something I had read last night in Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom;

    “As to the method of bringing science to bear on Scripture, the Physiologus gives an example, illustrating the passage in the book of Job which speaks of the old lion perishing for lack of prey. Out of the attempt to explain an unusual Hebrew word in the text there came a curious development of error, until we find fully evolved an account of the ‘ant-lion,’ which, it gives us to understand, was the lion mentioned by Job, and it says: ‘As to the ant-lion, his father hath the shape of a lion, his mother that of an ant; the father liveth upon flesh and the mother upon herbs; these bring forth the ant-lion, a compound of both and in part like to either; for his fore part is like that of a lion and his hind part like that of an ant. Being thus composed, he is neither able to eat flesh like his father nor herbs like his mother, and so he perisheth.’”

  2. #2 Jon
    July 30, 2007

    How about the exciting ant-lion scene in City Under the Back Steps? A 5th grade teacher read it to us in class, and that book started my interests in science, reading, and science fiction.

  3. #3 Felicia Gilljam
    July 30, 2007

    Are ants and other landbound insects more (or less?) active on moonlit nights than dark ones?

  4. #4 Felicia Gilljam
    July 30, 2007

    Oh. This article suggests there is no significant difference in foraging activity during different parts of the lunar cycle in at least one species of ant. So much for that hypothesis.

  5. #5 coturnix
    July 31, 2007

    There was a study some years back suggesting that there is a lunar rhythm of activity in honeybee foragers.

    Also, my lab-buddy Chris is working on his manuscript on circa-lunar rhythms in three species (from three different continents) of geckos.

    In the field, some rodents and snakes show lunar rhythms, but it was not tested if they are endogenously driven (i.e., ‘circalunar’) or just effects of light.

    Finally, many intertidal and marine organisms show tidal rhythms, from Palolo worms, through grunion fish, to Galapagos marine iguanas.

  6. #6 jeff
    August 3, 2007

    My wife and I were at a picnic a while back and my wife saw something flicking sand up and brought it to my attention. I watched in joy seeing a new home being created right in the middle of all the people. I tried to tell my West Virginia wife what it was and she thought I was lying (as if even I could make up a story like that) in telling her about it. an other guest told her the same thing and tried to catch it and missed. so I found you site and did some good ole southern education and now my dear sweet wife knows that the holes are not made from rain drops. thanks for a simple way to of telling her about this creature.

  7. #7 kk
    June 14, 2009

    i use to try to catch these when i was little and play with them. .
    ,.., lol ;]!!!