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Larva of palpares hispanus

The beast among the leaf litter

By José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

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The larva of our largest ant lion, the palpares hispanus, is an insect in the order of neuroptera, whose adult is very reminiscent of dragonflies, although it does not show their flight abilities. Its four narrow and elongated wings propel it slowly and awkwardly and are folded along its abdomen when they are at rest midway up among the vegetation, to improve its camouflage. Most of its life is spent in a larval form, completely unnoticed by our eyes, its territory is too far away from them, around our feet. Among the low vegetation, the pebbles of the road edges and the parched clay among the salty bushes and the open grassland areas exhausted by the heat of summer, is where this aggressive predator of grotesque forms reigns, a terrifying beast among the leaf litter.


Adult of palpares libelluloides

Adult of palpares hispanus

Their larvae are not aquatic like those of dragonflies, but terrestrial. Unlike the smaller lion ants, so abundant in our forests and always living on sandy terrain where they can build their funnel-shaped traps to catch their preys, these huge lion ants live on other kind of habitats . The larvae of palpares hispanus prefer more open and sunny areas with meadows of tall grasses on dry soils, and this is what they find in our marshes during part of the year. And luck has taken me this year to see them for the first time, first a few weeks ago trapped in the beak of an hoopoe and now next to my feet when I was watching the marshes, life’s coincidences. The warm beginning of autumn that we have had has undoubtedly favored many species, both invertebrates and vertebrates that feed on them. A good example of this is the impressive explosion of dragonflies that we had in October. And surely these spectacular lion ants have also been favored by good weather conditions. This explains, in my humble opinion, why this year I finally came across them, after many years of waiting, for this elusive animal. Either I’m wrong or next year this abundance of larvae will result in a large proliferation of winged adults that will decorate our marshes at the end of spring.


With its terrifying jaws, this little monster of more than 2 cm in length, terrifies the whole community of small invertebrates they share the lower strata of the vegetation closest to the ground with. It is an avid predator that captures its prey and immobilizes it to then absorb all its internal liquids and leave its dry shell when finished. When it gets upset, it adopts a defensive posture, arching her body and raising its head to show her powerful defensive weapons.

Larva of palpares hispanus


They live for about 2-3 years and at the end of their larval development they bury in the ground and build a spherical cocoon made of silk and sand particles or small stones to complete their cycle inside and metamorphose into the winged adult, which will keep on living for a few more weeks.

Larva of palpares hispanus 

It has been an exciting encounter with this poorly known little beast. I really wanted to leave a record with these snapshots and share it with you. This is another of the wonders that hides in the exuberant nature of Doñana.

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About José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

José Antonio Sánchez se licenció en Biología por la Universidad de Sevilla en 1985. Más tarde, durante varios años, se dedicó a organizar y guiar rutas de senderismo y naturaleza ...