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Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Sep 21, 2017

At the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, we regularly welcome school groups coming for a tour. One of the first questions the docents get from the children is, “Are we going to see bears?” or, “What animals are on the trails?” We try gently to explain that many animals hide when a group of 10 grade-schoolers marches noisily on the trail, but if we look, we can find traces of those animals.

A good illustration of this fact on the trail is when we stop to study our first coyote scat. You can see the incredulous look on the children faces: “We are looking at poop? Gross.” Then a look of surprise and mild appreciation appears. “She can tell that the coyote eats a lot of Hollywood cherries, because we can see all the pits in the scat. That is kind of interesting … I never knew that.” We will rarely see a coyote on the trail, but we can see it was there recently and left its trace.

You do not have to go far to notice animal activity. Even in your back yard, you can make discoveries without ever seeing the animal.

There is a large wood-rat nest in my neighbor’s back yard and many smaller nests were started in my yard, so I know there is an active presence around. But I only saw a furry tail once, for a slip of a second.

You know birds build nests in the trees around your house, but often you are not aware they were there until all of the foliage comes down and you can see the delicate construction.

It came to my attention there is a common insect that most people are not aware of because you never see it. It is mostly active underground. However, if you know what you are looking for, its traps are in many places and are very obvious.

I would like to discuss the antlion. Never heard of it? Wait a minute, maybe you know them under the name doodlebugs, and that is what I was referring to. They make those meandering trails as they look for the perfect place to dig their trap.

Once they find a good place they walk backward, flicking sand, so the trap is made only with soft soil or sand. They throw aside all rocks or little roots that would prevent them from making a perfect, cone-shaped pit. They keep going deeper so the cone of the trap gets smaller and smaller. Then they bury themselves at the bottom of the pit with their mandibles sticking out. If an ant passes by, it falls into the pit. It will try to escape, but the pit is made of very loose sand, going deeper and deeper, and there is no way to escape the deadly mandibles at the bottom of the pit. It is one of the simplest but extremely efficient traps.

Does that sound like a nightmare? It gets better. This antlion is in the larva stage and does not have a mouth, only a slit, so it cannot chew. Those curved mandibles again come to the rescue because the only thing the antlion larva can eat needs to be liquefied. The hooks inject a digestive enzyme into the prey so all the tissues get dissolved, and then the larva can suck its food.

The larva is not the most beautiful creature. It is grey or brown with a soft body covered in bristles, but you will very rarely see it if you do not dig for it. I have found the best way to see this elusive creature is to dig in one swift scoop inside the soft pit with a tea strainer. All of the soft sand from the pit will drain away, and you will be left with the larva so you can see it. It is very small (a little shorter than a nail), and once you have a good look, put it back where it was so it gets a chance to rebuild its trap.

Why are they called antlion? Because they feed mostly on ants, I guess, and they are the big, top predator, so they became the lion of the ants.

The story does not stop here. It is a larva, so you know this is only one cycle in its life. It starts with eggs that change into larva. Then it goes into metamorphosis inside a cocoon buried in the sand. The pupa, when it comes to full size, can make this cocoon with fine silk coming from a spinneret at its rear end and mix it up with soil. The cocoon is buried in the ground. It will take about one month of patient waiting, but then a wonderful insect will come out of the cocoon.

They are from the large family Neuroptera that includes lacewings and resemble damselflies. They are very different from damselflies because they have long, clubbed antennae. They have two pairs of translucent wings and a slender abdomen; they are active only during the evening, fluttering at night, looking for a mate. They are rarely seen during the day and are poor flyers. They usually stay put during the day, and they have great camouflage with transparent wings and a grayish body.

The life span of the adult is usually about 25 days, and their most important goal is to find a mate to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species by laying eggs.

There are about 2,000 species of antlions found in many parts of the world, but the species that dig pits to attract their prey seem to favor dry climates where the pit won’t be destroyed by pouring rain. That makes sense.

In cooler climates or during the rainy season, they dig deeper into the ground and remain inactive during the winter. They can survive many months without food because the larva has a low metabolic rate.

In the southern part of the United States, people chant a little song to make the antlion come out of its hole. That seems totally useless and not efficient at all until you learn that people are doing the same in Africa, the Caribbean, China and Australia. Why, oh why?

Sometimes life imitates fiction at its best. When it came time to find a horrible sarlacc monster for the Star Wars movies, the producers did not have to look any further than the antlion, which was the direct inspiration. You can see an uncanny resemblance to the larva.

In nature, it is important to learn to look closely at many little things to be able to learn the real story. Who would have thought those doodling designs in the dust would bring you to the antlion?

 

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. I always enjoy your informative articles.

  2. SCVTeamM says:

    Agreed, Great article.

  3. mama bear says:

    Re the coyote scat and the Holly Cherry seeds: We were hiking in Placerita Canyon one winter the found scat with lots of seeds in it. We knew it wasn’t the season for the holly cherries, so we asked at the Nature Center upon the completion of our hike. They said the coyotes can eat holly cherries all year around because they dig up the fruit that has been buried during the growing season–either their own stash, or the stash of some other unsuspecting snimal who has probably long forgotten where he/she hid the berries anyway!

  4. mama bear says:

    Oops another typo (bad, bad, bad!) It says “the found scat” but should have said “and found scat.” And maybe the kids made the transition to HOllywood Cherries, but they’re are officially only Holly Cherries!

  5. Thank you Evelyne, You always write interesting articles to inform us about our Nature right here in Newhall.
    We saw a poor coyote right in front of my house on 8th Street on Thursday morning. It looked like it needed a good meal and drink of water. He did not seem afraid of us and he/she just walked up hill to Scotts house and went into their yard. I have also been hearing the lovely owls in our trees. I know you like nature however the rats carry many diseases and are not helpful to our neighborhood.

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