Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Today’s blog was written by Jessica Stillman, Discovery program project coordinator.

What is ferocious like a lion, fast like a tiger, or hibernates like a bear?

These three amazing insects!

Antlions, tiger beetles, and Woolly Bear Caterpillars might not be the first things that pop into your mind when you think of a furry or ferocious predator, but believe me, these small critters are mighty impressive!

Ferocious insect predators

Antlions are not at all what their name makes them sound like.

Are you picturing an ant with a lion mane? Or maybe a lion as small as an ant?

Well, even your wildest imagination probably couldn’t devise this insect’s larval stage.

Juvenile and adult antlion
Left: the larval stage of an antlion in its sand burrow, waiting for insect prey to fall in. Right: antlion adult with a slender body and wings resembling a damselfly or dragonfly.

These insects really show their lion-side by hunting for insects during their larval stage.

A larval antlion

Unlike lions who are designed to chase prey, antlions use a slightly different technique with their bulbous body and large piercing pinchers… they set a trap!

Burrowing themselves into loose soil, an antlion larva constructs a cone-shaped pit by throwing loose soil out of its trap with its head.

When the pit is adequately formed, the antlion sets its trap by positioning its sickle-like jaw at the bottom, just below the surface.

Waiting for prey to stumble into the pit, it senses the vibrations of its meal trying to escape.

When dinner falls to the bottom of the hole, SNAP!

The pinchers close around the prey, puncturing the insect’s exoskeleton and injecting it with venom. The antlion can now suck the contents of its prey out of the exoskeleton before discarding the empty skin out of the pit and resetting for round two.

While antlions may not hunt in a pack, 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, just like their namesake.

As adults, tiger beetles come in a variety of iridescent colours.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

They are easily recognizable by their large, bulging eyes, long legs, and sickle-shaped mandibles.

Invertebrates like spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, and ants better watch out! Tiger beetles use their keen vision to spot prey, and long legs to sprint towards it.

Oddly enough, tiger beetles move so fast that they can’t process the things they are seeing fast enough.

Eye of the tiger

While they run, they are temporarily blind. This means they need to take brief pauses to refocus on their prey before they continue the pursuit.

However, once prey is in the sights of these speedy beetles, it isn’t long before their target is chomped between powerful mandibles!

Tiger beetle

Being one of the fastest land insects in the world makes it easy to be an incredible predator, but it also makes it hard to make friends.

Just 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 a good thing they learn from a young age how to hunt on their own!

After constructing a vertical burrow, larva use the hooks along their body to anchor themselves into their trap. At the opening of their burrow, they wait to ambush their prey.

When the perfect meal stumbles too close to the opening, the larva attacks with lightning speed, grabbing their food with sharp jaws and pulling it down into the burrow!

Do the speedy and blinding hunting techniques of tiger beetles make them a maverick insect?

I don’t know for sure, but I do know they feel the need… the need for speed!

The great, tiny hibernator

There’s no better sign of a warm fall day or of spring’s arrival than seeing a Woolly Bear Caterpillar, as its distinctive black and brown, bristle-covered body quickly scurries across the path in front of you.

Brown and black caterpillar

These fuzzy caterpillars are covered in dense, stiff hairs that give them the appearance of being a fur-covered creature like a bear.

A Woolly Bear’s “fur” doesn’t protect them from the cold bite of winter like the fur of other bears. Instead, it helps protect them from predators.

When frightened, these little bears curl up into a tight fuzzy ball, protected on all sides by their bristly hairs.

woolly bear caterpillar

These little bristles easily break off into 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 do have a neat adaptation in common: both these creatures hibernate!

Their techniques for hibernating do differ a little though.

“Bear-y” cold!

When it is time to begin hibernating, Woolly Bear Caterpillars find a safe location to curl up under the leaf litter, and then their bodies begin to make anti-freeze.

This anti-freeze lowers the freezing point of the caterpillar’s blood, which prevents ice formation and protects it against cell damage.

woolly bear caterpillar

This means the caterpillar can freeze completely and thaw in the springtime without any harm.

With this amazing adaptation, Woolly Bear Caterpillars don’t need to rely on their fuzzy bodies to protect them from winter’s chill, but instead use it to ward off predators who might take advantage of their smaller size.

Nature on a smaller scale

Parks are full of so many amazing creatures big and small.

You don’t need to travel far to witness the ferocious 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 pictures.

Use #AskanOPNaturalist to learn more about what you’ve seen!