Over the week-end I picked up a copy of Jennifer Ackerman’s Notes From The Shore, a book of essays about shore life along Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Books about the ocean are always sure to catch my interest, and since we had the good fortune to be able to visit Cape Henlopen a few years ago, I was doubly interested.
I’m not very far into it yet, but I love her writing style and I’m learning more about the natural world, which was one of my reading goals this year. Today I’m fascinated by the antlion; here’s what Ackerman writes:
“Here on a sunbaked slope is the pit of a creature with a name like an oxymoron or an odd chimera out of my childhood bestiary: the ant lion. It is the larva of a delicate, long-bodied insect. In its adult form, the creature looks like a damselfly, but its larva is a grotesque, wedge-shaped thing the color of slate with long, bristling sickle like jaws. It digs a conical pit by moving backward in a circle, plowing the sand with the tip of its sharp abdomen and flipping the grains upwards with its flat head. The pit is about the width of a child’s thumb and perfectly engineered as a live trap. The smooth, sloping sides form an angle of exactly 32 degrees, the angle of repose for sand grains. The ant lion lies in wait at the apex of the pit, all but its jaws concealed. When an ant stumbles over the edge, it starts an avalanche of sand on the slipface, loses its toehold, and tumbles into the jaws of the larva. With a quick jab, the ant lion pierces its prey, sucks out the juices, and flips the empty body out of the trap.”
I found a National Geographic video of an antlion in Africa setting its trap and capturing prey. I showed it to the children (shuddering the whole way through; it *is* grotesque) and they are, of course, now playing antlions in the bedroom. The type described in the video can remain in the larval stage for up to three years. Isn’t that crazy?!
According to Wikipedia, they are “worldwide in distribution,” and here in America, we call them doodlebugs because of the marks they leave in the sand. Or, rather, other Americans apparently call them doodlebugs. It sounds vaguely familiar to me, but I’m certain I’ve never used it before. The name refers to the shape they leave in the sand, their “doodles.”
What really caught my attention in Ackerman’s description was how perfect the angle formed by the antlion was ~ the 32 degrees. This precision made me curious and I found an article in the Journal of Experimental Biology that discussed the antlions and their traps. As the article summary says:
“Antlions produce efficient traps, with slopes steep enough to guide preys to their mouths without any attack, and shallow enough to avoid the likelihood of avalanches typical of crater angles.”
As I skim the article (children have moved on from playing antlion to playing in the chilly backyard, coming in for a hot cider snack break, talking to me about their outdoor play, and going back outside again. plus I put the baby down for a nap. So concentrated scientific reading is Right Out and skimming is In Order), I’m amazed at the beauty and design in this less than beautiful creature. Yes, I said it. Design. I know the authors of the scientific article may think it nonsense. Ackerman may think so, too. But as I read about the “near perfect” cones constructed by the sandlions, as I marvel at the efficiency of their system, the academic forces required to research and share what this creature does so effortlessly, I am left with these verses reverberating in my mind:
“…God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it…”
As God spread out the earth, He made room for the lion (the mammal), the ant (the insect), and the antlion (that weird little larva!). Plus the millions of other animals out there. And then US. Who are we, that He is mindful of us? What an intricate, beautiful world He’s created… and then He shared it with us, so we could discover it. What a precious gift!