1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ant-lion

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ANT-LION, the name given to neuropterous insects of the family Myrmeleonidae, with relatively short and apically clubbed antennae and four large densely reticulated wings in which the apical veins enclose regular oblong spaces. The perfect insects are for the most part nocturnal and are believed to be carnivorous. The best-known species, Myrmeleon formicarius, which may be found adult in the late summer, occurs in many countries on the European continent, though like the rest of this group it is not indigenous in England. Strictly speaking, however, the term ant-lion applies to the larval form, which has been known scientifically for over two hundred years, on account of its peculiar and forbidding appearance and its skilful and unique manner of entrapping prey by means of a pitfall. The abdomen is oval, sandy-grey in hue and beset with warts and bristles; the prothorax forms a mobile neck for the large square head, which carries a pair of long and powerful toothed mandibles. It is in dry and sandy soil that the ant-lion lays its trap. Having marked out the chosen site by a circular groove, it starts to crawl backwards, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil. By the aid of one front leg it places consecutive heaps of loosened particles upon its head, then with a smart jerk throws each little pile clear of the scene of operations. Proceeding thus it gradually works its way from the circumference towards the centre. When the latter is reached and the pit completed, the larva settles down at the bottom, buried in the soil with only the jaws projecting above the surface. Since the sides of the pit consist of loose sand they afford an insecure foothold to any small insect that inadvertently ventures over the edge. Slipping to the bottom the prey is immediately seized by the lurking ant-lion; or if it attempt to scramble again up the treacherous walls of the pit, is speedily checked in its efforts and brought down by showers of loose sand which are jerked at it from below by the larva. By means of similar head-jerks the skins of insects sucked dry of their contents are thrown out of the pit, which is then kept clear of refuse. A full-grown larva digs a pit about 2 in. deep and 3 in. wide at the edge. The pupa stage of the ant-lion is quiescent. The larva makes a globular case of sand stuck together with fine silk spun, it is said, from a slender spinneret at the posterior end of the body. In this it remains until the completion of the transformation into the sexually mature insect, which then emerges from the case, leaving the pupal integument behind. In certain species of Myrmeleonidae, such as Dendroleon pantheormis, the larva, although resembling that of Myrmeleon structurally, makes no pitfall, but seizes passing prey from any nook or crevice in which it shelters.

The exact meaning of the name ant-lion (Fr. fourmilion) is uncertain. It has been thought that it refers to the fact that ants form a large percentage of the prey of the insect, the suffix “lion” merely suggesting destroyer or eater. Perhaps, however, the name may only signify a large terrestrial biting apterous insect, surpassing the ant in size and predatory habits. (R. I. P.)