Monday, February 27, 2006

Lunar Rhythms in the Antlion

[Note: People who have read my other blog about a year ago are familiar with this story]

When I was a kid I absolutely loved a book called "Il Ciondolino" by Ricardo Vamba - a book in two slim volumes for kids (how times change - try to publish a 200+ page book of dense text for children today!). I later found out that it was translated into English under the title The Prince And His Ants in 1910 (Luigi BERTELLI (M: 1858 or 1860 - 1920) (&ps: VAMBA) The Prince And His Ants [It-?]. Holt.(tr S F WOODRUFF) [1910] * Il Giornalino Di Gran Burrasca [It-?] (tr ?) [?] ) and was even The Nation's Book of the Week on June 2nd 1910.

["Vamba" is the pseudonym of Italian fantasist Luigi
Bertelli. The Prince and His Ants (1910) tells the tale of a boy who becomes an
ant, and a girl who becomes a butterfly. The English translation by one Miss
Woodruff was edited by Vernon Kellogg, an insect authority at Stanford
University. Ninety interior illustrations are scientifically accurate.]

This book is hard to find - don't even bother with Amazon - but my brother was persistent and after several weeks of patient searching he got a copy from Alibris and sent it to me. It is a story of a boy who wakes up one morning transformed into an ant. The book describes his travels and adventures in the world of the small. Of course, he meets a bunch of really cool creatures, like various wasps and bees and moths and honey-ants, etc. But the one I remember the most was the ant-lion.

The antlion is actually quite pretty, yet short-lived, as an adult. But it is the larva that is really cool:

It digs a pit in the send and hides underneath the sand right under the bottom of the pit. When an ant, or some other insect comes by, it falls into the pit and has trouble climbing out of its steep walls again. The ant-lion lunges out of the sand (like a scence from "Tremors") and eats the poor bug:

Now the really cool part: the volume of the pit is bigger when the antlion is hungrier (or so they say at this marvelous website that I highly recommend you browse around). But, hungry or not, the ant-lion digs a bigger pit when the moon is full. Nobody has any idea why that would be so. Here is a photograph of a colony of ant-lions, each with its own little pit:

But here is the coolest part of all. If you take ant-lions out of the field and put them in little sandboxes in the laboratory and isolate them from any cues about the outside world they will still dig bigger pits roughly every four weeks - they have an internal lunar rhythm:

They have, somewhere in their brains, a lunar clock that tells them to dig larger pits whenever the moon is full even if they canot see the moon itself (e.g., on a dark cloudy night). If and when somebody figures out how this little brain works, I'll be sure to tell you all on my blog, but you may have to wait years for it - nobody is even thinking about studying it right now.


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