Today’s blog was written by Jessica Stillman, School Outreach Coordinator for Bronte Creek Provincial Park.
What is fierce like a lion, fast like a tiger or hibernates like a bear?
These three amazing insects!
Antlions, tiger beetles, and woolly bear caterpillars may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of a furry or ferocious predator, but trust me, these little critters are very impressive!
Ferocious insect predators
Antlions are not at all what they sound like from their name.
Can you imagine an ant with a lion’s mane? Or maybe a lion as small as an ant?
Well, not even your wildest imagination could imagine the larval stage of this insect.
Left: larval stage of an antlion in its sand burrow, waiting for its prey to fall. Right: Adult antlion with a slender body and wings that resemble a damselfly or dragonfly.
These insects really show their tawny side by hunting insects during their larval stage.
An antlion larva
Unlike lions, which are designed to chase their prey, antlions use a slightly different technique with their bulbous body and large piercing pincers… they set a trap!
Burrowing into loose soil, an antlion larva builds a cone-shaped hole by tossing loose soil from its trap with its head.
When the hole is properly formed, the antlion sets its trap by placing its sickle-shaped jaw on the bottom, just below the surface.
While waiting for its prey to fall into the pit, it feels the vibrations of its food trying to escape.
When dinner falls to the bottom of the hole, SHAP!
The pincers close around the prey, piercing the insect’s exoskeleton and injecting venom. The antlion can now suck the contents of its prey out of the exoskeleton before discarding the empty skin from the pit and restarting for the second round.
While antlions may not hunt in packs, these ferocious predators take pride in a well-executed hunt.
A need for speed!
Tiger beetles are a large group of beetles known for their aggressive predatory nature and high running speed, much like their namesake.
As adults, tiger beetles come in a variety of iridescent colors.
They are easily recognized by their large, bulging eyes, long legs, and sickle-shaped jaws.
You better watch out for invertebrates like spiders, beetles, grasshoppers and ants! Tiger beetles use their keen vision to detect their prey and their long legs to run towards them.
Oddly enough, tiger beetles move so fast that they can’t process what they see fast enough.
eye of the tiger
As they run, they become temporarily blind. This means they need to take short breaks to refocus on their prey before continuing the chase.
However, once prey is in the sights of these fast-moving beetles, it isn’t long before their target is gnawed between powerful jaws!
Being one of the fastest land insects in the world makes it easy to be an incredible predator, but it also makes it difficult to make friends.
Like their tiger namesakes, tiger beetles are solitary animals that need to be able to hunt and kill on their own to survive.
It’s good that they learn from a young age to hunt alone!
After building a vertical burrow, the larvae use the hooks along their body to anchor themselves in their trap. At the opening of their burrow, they wait to ambush their prey.
When the perfect meal gets too close to the opening, the larva attacks with lightning speed, grabbing its food with its sharp jaws and dragging it towards the burrow.
Do tiger beetles’ blindingly fast hunting techniques make them maverick insects?
I don’t know for sure, but I do know that they feel the need… the need for speed!
The big and little hibernator
There is no better sign of a warm fall day or the arrival of spring than watching a woolly bear caterpillar, as its distinctive black and brown body, covered in bristles, scuttles quickly down the path in front of you.
These furry caterpillars are covered in dense, stiff hairs that give them the appearance of a fur-covered creature like a bear.
The “fur” of a woolly bear does not protect it from the cold of winter like the fur of other bears. Rather, it helps protect them from predators.
When frightened, these bears curl up into a tight, furry ball, protected on all sides by their bristly hairs.
These small bristles easily detach from the skin of anything that touches them, causing little harm to the caterpillar, but giving any predator a painful and irritating reminder to leave this little bear alone.
While woolly bear caterpillars may not use their fur for the same reason as a bear, they have one clear adaptation in common: both creatures hibernate!
However, their techniques for hibernating differ a bit.
When it’s time to begin hibernating, woolly bear caterpillars find a safe place to curl up under leaf litter and then their bodies begin producing antifreeze.
This antifreeze lowers the freezing point of the caterpillar’s blood, which prevents ice formation and protects against cell damage.
This means that the caterpillar can freeze completely and thaw in spring without any damage.
With this amazing adaptation, woolly bear caterpillars do not need to rely on their furry bodies to protect themselves from the winter cold, but instead use it to protect themselves from predators that might take advantage of their smaller size.
Nature on a smaller scale
The parks are filled with so many amazing creatures, big and small.
You don’t have to travel far to witness the fierce hunting style of a lion, the incredible speed of a tiger or the unique hibernation of a bear.
You just need to spot one of our six-legged insect friends!
Have you seen an amazing insect during a visit to a park and want to know more about it? Be sure to tag us in your insect and other photos.
Use #AskanOPNaturalist to learn more about what you’ve seen!