Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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The Amazing Ant Lion

January 1, 2018

Someday, in your travels, you might spot a small round hole in the dirt, about the size of a drinking straw.

And even better, surrounding the hole, there might be a downward pointing cone of dirt or sand, maybe several inches across, leading down into the hole.

If you see both of these, you may have found the dwelling of an Ant Lion, or as it is sometimes spelled, Antlion!

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(The cones in this image are about 2 inches across)

Given the size of the hole, you may suspect this creature is not really a lion, and you would be right.

But it is not an ant either! To the regret of nearby ants.

In fact, to an ant, it must seem as fierce and deadly as a lion! Because the whole point of the hole in the ground and the slippery-slope funnel-cone leading down to it is to trap ants, which will then be grabbed by the horrific looking jaws of the Ant Lion, injected with venom and enzymes, and sucked completely dry of life!

Yiiiiikes!

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Crazy-ferocious Ant Lion, photo courtesy of Phil Meyers

It sounds like something from a horror movie! So much so, in fact, that the Ant Lion was used as a model for a sand-dwelling monster in the movie Dune!

Like many other insects, Ant Lions go through several surprising life stages. As adults, Ant Lions look like frail dragonflies, who fly around for a few days, then lay eggs and die.

The eggs eventually hatch and grow into larvae, what we usually think of as worms or grubs. Ant Lion grubs are certainly remarkable looking, with those immense jaws, sticking out front like lobster claws. Their bodies, generally an inch long or less, are covered with dark hairs and bristles, adding a wild and wooly look to their ferocity.

And here’s another clue—near the sand-funnel with the hole at the bottom, you may notice a meandering trail in the dirt, like a little ditch. And this wandering line, which looks something like a doodle you might draw on paper, gives the Ant Lion its other name—the Doodlebug!

But why do they do the doodling they do?

Well, look at the size of their jaws! Because their jaws are so enormous compared to their body size, they have to walk around backwards! You would probably meander too, if you had to walk around backwards all the time.

Ant Lions are so clever that they are found all over the world, so you can look for them even if you are not in the desert. And, given how many kinds there are, when being formal, we will not be specific, but just call them by their family name, Myrmeleontidae.

So watch for, and warn any ants, if you see the signs of these remarkable predators!

 

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Who made a saguaro hole in one?

March 26, 2017

Out in the desert, you may hear a loud “Chirrr” sound. Look up, and you may see a flash of black and white wings, then see a brown-headed individual running or hopping up the trunk of a tree, if there are any trees around, or a cactus. If it’s a cactus, that’s got to be a fairly death-defying move, navigating among the thorns.

When you see all of these clues together in southern Arizona or northwestern Mexico, it’s quite likely you have spotted a Gila Woodpecker.

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You can recognise Gila Woodpeckers, Melanerpes uropygialis, both male and female birds, from the thin vivid black and white bars across their wings and back, and their brown heads. In addition, the male has a red patch on his forehead. And, as well as their distinctive “Chirrr” call, they also make loud peeps.

In an unusual and clever tactic, they use their tails to prop them up vertically as they locomote, hunting for insect meals on bark or cactus skin, or when they hammer out nests.

The big black holes you see in the sides of many saguaros? Credit goes to these folks!

They use their strong beaks on their well-cushioned heads to whack nest holes into the sides of saguaro cacti, and if they can find any, other tall woody plants of the desert, including cottonwoods.

The nest holes they excavate in saguaros, which are often used by other birds, eventually harden into “saguaro boots.” These woody, rounded, boot-shaped forms remain even after the saguaro dies, and have been used as containers by humans since the olden days.

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The fog comes.

January 23, 2017

on little coot feet.

You may have already heard the correct quote the way Carl Sandburg originally wrote it—”The fog comes. on little cat feet…” But this is different. This is coot, not cat. And coots have strange and amazing feet.

Well, just look at them—first of all, they are quite big feet, not little feet!

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And they are not long and skinny-toed like crow feet. Or wide and webbed like duck feet.

Instead, coots do have skinny toes, but with foldable fins on each toe.  So the contrast with crow feet is clear—coots are water birds.

But the contrast with ducks, those other water birds, is extremely interesting. Ducks have webbed feet, with webbing between the toes. When ducks pick up their feet, or move them forward in the water, the whole foot folds, to reduce drag. Then, as they push back, their feet flatten out again, so they press against a lot of water to propel them forward.

Coots use a more subtle system. For them, foldable skin flaps extend out on either side of the toes. When they lift a foot, or move it forward in the water, the flaps fold, reducing the drag against the water. Then when they push back, the flaps widen out and provide a lot of surface area for propulsion. This also helps them walk confidently over bogs or swamps or other kinds of squishy ground.

Plus, these clever feet are picturesque—green and gray and black and white—with striking patterns and colors for someone we think of as just little monochrone water birds.

Well, yes, not to mention red eyes and a red-brown forehead badge, and a charcoal back and white tailfeathers, and their pleasing football-shaped bodies.

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New Desert Creatures Mysteries e-book

August 12, 2014

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Now you can get a great Desert Creatures Mysteries e-book.

It goes into detail about the strange animals of the desert, and some of the cool science about them.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/455225