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The Ant Lion and the Art of Living Extraordinarily

Updated on August 10, 2018
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

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Ant lions, in their larval stage, eat small insects, mainly ants, by trapping them inside a pit they prepare in loose sand with great geometrical precision. This is one of the reasons why ant lion larvae are more popular than ant lion adults, at least among the kids who dig up ant lion pits just to hold the larvae in their palm and enjoy seeing it walk backwards.

A Kids’ Favorite

In our place, as children, we used to feed ant lion larvae by putting ants into the ant lion pit. To watch the theatrics that followed was just fun. It was only after many years into adulthood that I started thinking about the struggle of life and death the ant performed in an ant lion pit. Anyway, nature works like that.

The ant lion will be hiding in the middle of the pit. Once the ant realizes it is trapped in the pit, it will try to climb up. But the slope of the pit and the falling sand particles would make its climb very difficult if not impossible. It is at the exact moment when the ant starts its escape climb that the ant lion springs to action. Now it knows there is a prey in its pit and “using flicks of its head, (it) hurls sand at the unfortunate prey”[1] The ant will climb a few times and also fall a few times before it is grabbed by the efficient jaws of the ant lion waiting at the centre of the pit. And then, naturally, the ant lion eats the ant.

[1] Ross, P., n.d., Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Retrieved from https://www.marefa.org/images/e/ea/Piper_Extraordinary_Animals-An_Encyclopedia_.pdf

A Life of No Waste

However there are more things than meet the eyes in this eating part too. The problem is an ant lion larvae has no anus.[1] Hence using its jaws, it injects strong enzymes into the ant’s body and once the inside contents turn to liquid as a result, it sucks it all up using the same jaw, leaving the outer shell of the ant so weightless that the next breeze would most probably carry it away from the pit.[2] As an ant lion consumes only this kind of liquid food, there is no need to pee or poop. When after two or three years of such fun life inside the pit and when larvae pupate to turn eventually into an ant lion adult fly, then only it defecates, in a sense.[3] Even then, a part of the waste material goes into the building of the pupa.[4]


[1] Ross, P., n.d., Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Retrieved from https://www.marefa.org/images/e/ea/Piper_Extraordinary_Animals-An_Encyclopedia_.pdf

[2] Ross, P., n.d., Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Retrieved from https://www.marefa.org/images/e/ea/Piper_Extraordinary_Animals-An_Encyclopedia_.pdf

[3] Ross, P., n.d., Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Retrieved from https://www.marefa.org/images/e/ea/Piper_Extraordinary_Animals-An_Encyclopedia_.pdf

[4] Ross, P., n.d., Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Retrieved from https://www.marefa.org/images/e/ea/Piper_Extraordinary_Animals-An_Encyclopedia_.pdf

Architects or Mathematicians?

How do ant lions make such perfect inverted conical pits? Pit-making begins when an ant lion larvae draws a wonderful circle just following its nature-taught intuition. Then it starts walking along the circumference, of course backwards. As it goes, it will throw out very small yet frequent pinches of sand to the outside of the circle using its head. Actually it uses its abdomen to plough the sand and then collect the sand particles on its head so that it can throw them away.[1] It takes almost 20-25 minutes to complete the pit.

How do the ant lion know how deep is the sand when it draws the circle? What if they draw a bigger circle and there in no depth to fulfill the vertical axis of the cone? Won’t that leave the cone incomplete? But that seems not happening. The reason is as ant lions go digging, the digging grove is constantly shifting inwards and hence circumference will get diminished gradually if the depth of the sand is not suited to that.[2] Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia says the circumference of the circle is in proportion to the fact, how hungry the larvae are.[3] There is a research paper that says the “trajectory angle” in which ant lions throw sand particles out while making the pit is 45 degree.[4] It is also said, this angle helps the ant lion to remove the largest particles as far away as possible from the pit so that there is no risk of them falling back into the pit and destroying the pit.[5] Really?! Are these fellows walking around with a protractor?

[1] Antlion, n.d., Encyclopedia Britannica, Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/animal/antlion

[2] Tuculescu, R., Topoff, H. and Wolfe, S., 1975, Mechanisms of pit construction by Antlion larvae, Annals of the Entemological Society of America, 68 (4), retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/aesa/article-abstract/68/4/719/22197?redirectedFrom=PDF

[3] Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia: Insects, 2003, M. Hutchins et al. (Eds.), Michigan: Gale research Inc.

[4] Lucas, J.R., 1982, The biophysics of pit construction by antlion larvae (Myrmeleon, Neuroptera), Animal Behavior, 30 (3), pp.651-652.

[5] Lucas, J.R., 1982, The biophysics of pit construction by antlion larvae (Myrmeleon, Neuroptera), Animal Behavior, 30 (3), pp.651-652.

Ant lion Pit

Sedentary yet Smart

Even when there is a scarcity of prey, ant lions usually do not shift their pits.[1] The shifting process is more taxing on its energy reserves than waiting a little more for the next prey to come. However it has been proven they can learn to catch the prey more efficiently and in less time based on the environmental changes around, for example, an abundance of prey.[2] This is important because having more food can allow it to enter the pupa stage in less time and this will give it a more prolonged adult life.


[1] Hollis et al., Specialized learning in Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae), pit-digging predators, shortens vulnerable larval stage, PLOS, Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0017958

[2] Hollis et al., Specialized learning in Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae), pit-digging predators, shortens vulnerable larval stage, PLOS, Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0017958

Moon, Charms and the Ant Lion

Let me give you one more beautiful fact from the life of an ant lion. They dig bigger pits if they are digging under a full moon.[1] It is not clear yet why they do so. Also called doodle bugs, ant lions have always caught the fancy of the children. There are many child hood chants that involve ant lions. Here are two examples, the first from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain:

“Doodlebug, Doodlebug, Tell me what I want to know”.[2]

The second incantation could be on the lips of many an English-speaking kid even now, when most of us live in crowded cities and urbanization has unearthed most of the ant lion pits:

Doodlebug, doodlebug, come out of your hole

Your house is on fire, your children are alone.


[1] Zivkovic, B., 2011, The mighty ant-lion, Scientific American, retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/a-blog-around-the-clock/the-mighty-ant-lion/

[2] Twain, M., 2015, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, New delhi: Fingerprint Publishing.

© 2018 Deepa

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