Michael Ellis: Antlions

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It’s known as one of the Little Five, but Michael Ellis says don’t let that fool you. This little critter is both clever and vicious.

When you’re game viewing in East Africa you want to see the Big Five -- lions, rhinos, cape buffaloes, leopards, elephants. But the local guides also emphasize the Little Five -- leopard tortoises, buffalo weavers, elephant shrews, rhinoceros beetles and antlions, all part of the fabric of nature.

Back here in faraway Santa Rosa I had a little bit of fine sand left over from a project so I spread it under a tree. And low and behold within a short period of time appeared these tiny conical pits. One of the Little Five! Antlions! I was thrilled.

These craters have the perfect angle of repose to trap small prey. When an ant stumbles into the pit a tiny avalanche occurs. Gravity and loose sand grains prevent the insect from escaping. At the bottom is a ferocious creature. Bristles all over the body anchor this animal firmly in the sand and poking out of the head are massive pinchers. As the ant struggles frantically to escape, the antlion undermines the sand, creating more instability, and the ant slides into the bottom. The giant pincers grab it and pound it to death.

I must confess as a small boy and even a grown-up naturalist I have found guilty pleasure in dropping ants into these pits and watching the resulting struggle. I know, I know some of us never grow up.


These predators are the larval form of a winged insect which fly mostly at night and can be mistaken for a dragonfly. They are short-lived and after finding the ideal location to lay eggs, they die. The eggs hatch into the familiar larvae. Cruising around backwards in soft sand searching for the perfect pit place, they leave curly random tracks, which gives rise to the other common name- doodle bugs.

Just the other day I watched an ant fall into the largest of the pits. A savage battle ensued that went on for minutes with the ant finally escaping. Hey, you don’t have to go on an African safari to witness drama; it could be in your front yard.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.