Mini-lecture of the day: Antlions

I would like to share some little snippets of what I’m learning with you. While I won’t have internet access every day, on the days that I do, I’m going to post a short note about some topic I find interesting. It could be an animal, a plant, or a theoretical topic in ecology.

We took an orientation walk in the forest today, guided by Smithsonian researcher Hector Barrios and our course instructor, Yves Basset. Dr. Barrios taught us interesting information about common plants and herbivores as we observed the vibrance life surrounding us. At one point, he had us stop to look at some small circles in a sandy area of the trail, and asked if we could guess what they were.

“Antlions?” I asked, rather hesitantly. Yves heard me and nodded, and I said it again more confidently. Thank you, YSI animal curators.

An antlion is an insect that in its adult form looks rather like a skinny dragonfly. More interesting is the antlion larvae, which are carnivorous. They dig small pits in sandy soil, and wait for other small insects to walk by. Insects will frequently slip on the edges of the pits, and fall down toward the antlion, which quickly strikes and grabs its prey with its mandibles. There were ten to fifteen of these small traps, and we spent a few minutes poking them gently with twigs, getting the antlions to shift and snap. Yves dug up one of the antlions for us to see more closely: it was brown, with a hard, segmented shell, and scurried around quickly until it was dropped back into the sand.

antlion nest
antlion nest


Antlion larva
Antlion larva


Agoutis are like squirrels, only cuter

I taught summer camp for many years at a park with lots of birds, beetles, lizards, and deer. And ground squirrels. Enough ground squirrels that it felt like at least one was always in sight, and on any given patch of grass there would be two or three or twenty. They dug around in the grass, chased each other up trees, and chattered obnoxiously. These squirrels were unafraid of people, and consequently constant pests: we had to keep the kids’ lunches closed up in boxes at all times so they wouldn’t steal any of them, and I chased squirrels away from our group at every meal time.

To me, they were drab, dull, and annoying. But to the kids, these squirrels were AWESOME. Every squirrel we passed on a trail was a new discovery, to be exclaimed over and talked about. Furthermore, a squirrel approaching the group wasn’t a pest, it was funny. So, so funny, as it skittered around, shuffled forward, or dodged away. We saw a lot of other interesting wildlife, but those squirrels were always in favor.

I just couldn’t understand the appeal.

Yesterday, a couple of us went on a walk around Gamboa. I saw well-preserved old houses, a few leafcutter ants, beautiful views of the tropical treetops, a couple vultures, and many smaller birds. It was hot and sunny and really pretty. As we headed back, we saw a medium-sized rodent, called an agouti, standing on someone’s grass. It dug around in the grass, and ate something it found there. And it was so cool! We stood there for a couple minutes, entranced by the way it looked, the way it moved, and just how calm it was around us.

That evening I realized that if I had grown up with agoutis all over the place, this one would have been just an ordinary rodent, looking for food. I think this is one of my favorite things about traveling to new places: the little differences that open our eyes to all of the amazing things we take for granted, and the chance to drop any jaded reaction and look at our surroundings like kids, excited by everything we see.