Death by Doodle: A Brief Natural History of the Antlion


Doodlebugs are the larval stage of a
lacewing like insect. Also known as antlions, they are voracious predators of ants. To catch their prey, they construct a pit in
the sand by digging backwards in a spiral. Using their head as a shovel. Construction of the pit is complete once
the antlion has buried itself at the bottom, where it sits and waits for its
meal. An ant struggles to climb up the sides of the pit, slipping with each
footstep. The sprinkle of sand down to the bottom of the pit gets the antlion’s
attention. It flings sand at the ant, making it slide further down into the
pit. The ant slips to the bottom where it’s grabbed by massive jaws and the
feeding process begins. With its prey half buried and struggling, the antlion
uses its needle-like mandibles to inject digestive enzymes into the ant’s body. Feeding is complete when the liquefied
contents of the ant’s body are sucked dry. But not all ants are helpless victims of
antlions, trap-jaw ants have spring-loaded jaws that they snap shut
to stun and capture prey. When they find themselves at the bottom of an antlion
pit they can snap their mandibles against the sand and use the force of
the strike to launch themselves out of the pit. Sometimes they only have
fractions of a second to perform these escape jumps and avoid the jaws of the
antlion. However once the trap-jaw is caught, its mandible snaps become
ineffective and the trap-jaw ant becomes just another meal for the antlion. One
of several ants this voracious predator will catch and feed on during a normal
day of its larval life.

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