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The formidable antlion trap

Capturing an ant
Credit: Insectarium de Montréal (René Limoges)
Capturing an ant
The formidable antlion trap

Have you ever seen little holes in the shape of funnels or inverted cones in nature? Have you ever seen an insect with transparent wings that looks like a damselfly (dragonfly), but with two long antennae?

A little-known insect in Québec

The antlion is a Neuropteran insect belonging to the family Myrmeleontidae. The scientific name for the antlion, Myrmeleon, is derived from the Latin roots myrmex for ant and leon for lion. This large-jawed insect in its larval stage is a voracious predator, and its trap is formidable.

In Québec, the antlion (Myrmeleon immaculatus) is found in different habitats, but it’s often partial to the sandy areas of our undergrowth. The adult antlion is a nocturnal insect, winged and quite fragile, and slow of flight. In spite of that it’s capable of feeding on small prey thanks to its little mandibles. The antlion larva, on the other hand, is very well suited to survive.

A formidable trap

The antlion larva digs a hole in the shape of a more or less hollow funnel, and according to its size. It patiently waits at the bottom of the hole, leaving only the top of its head and its big powerful mandibles showing. As soon as an ant falls into the formidable trap, the larva goes to grab it with its mandibles. If the ant tries to get out, the larva throws sand in its way so that it slides back into the fatal embrace. Then, the larva injects a venom that liquefies the ant’s insides, and feeds by sucking out that internal liquid.

Ants are the prey of choice, but antlion larvae have been observed feeding on small beetles, caterpillars, moths, wasps and spiders.

The life cycle of the antlion

The life cycle may be long or short, depending on the temperature, the abundance of prey and the place where the individual settles. The adult lives no longer than one month, and once impregnated, the female will lay one by one a series of eggs, mixed with a secretion that glues them to the ground. Larvae develop relatively slowly, over a period that can reach as much as three years. When the larva reaches maturity, it shuts itself up in a sort of shell, from which a mature winged adult will emerge. Males ready to mate produce a pheromone that attracts females, and the cycle repeats.

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