THE MYRMECOLEON EFFECT

The antlion is unique among modern animalia in that its evolution resulted not from a mutation within its genetic code, but rather, within the spelling of its name. Sometime during the legendary translation of the Septuagint from Hebrew into Greek for Ptolemy II, an old Hebrew variant of 'lion' used in the Book of Job was warped into the bizarre word 'myrmecoleon,' a portmanteau of the terms for 'ant' and 'lion.'

Over the centuries that followed, scholars searching their archives for the wisdom of antiquity wrote scores of accounts as to just what this ‘myrmecoleon’ was, many of which sharply contradicted. For some, it was a direct hybrid of mammal and insect, a creature damned to starve by its paradoxical metabolism. To others, it was the Myrmex Indikos previously described by Herodotus, a species of aggressive, fox-sized ant native to either India or Ethiopia, who warred with locals over ownership of the vast caches of gold hidden within their nests.

The most common (and reasonable) interpretation of the text, supported by Isidore of Seville, was that it referred to some form of "lion among ants:“ a fierce predator within its own context, but just another ant to the birds who preyed upon them. In these accounts, it was a traitor to its own kind, distancing itself from the hive either to hunt and cannibalize those who strayed into its territory, or to intercept and ambush columns delivering grain to their queen. 

When Carolus Linnaeus took it upon himself to classify the living things of the world, he drew heavily upon mythology and folklore to name the taxonomical categories that we use today. Through this task, he became an unwitting accessory to an Alexandrian conjuration centuries in the making. There was one particular family of net-winged insects, whose cunning larvae lured ants into pits with clouds of dust and devoured them whole. They produced no excrement, and eventually built cocoons from the partially digested bodies of their prey.

Linnaeus bestowed upon them the variant name myrmeleontidae, for, given the evidence, what else could they be?

With that, the evolution of the ant-lion was complete. After years of existing as ink passing from one page to another, it finally found itself canonized in the grand continuum of life. The integration was so complete as to appear seamless to the empirical eye; its lineage could be traced back to fossilized Neuropterae from a hundred million years prior. The whole axis of time had bent to make room for myth.

This phenomenon continues to influence the natural world. In his legendary 1959 novel Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs introduces readers to the “giant aquatic black centipede,” an unprecedented monstrosity, whose soporific flesh is devoured by addicts in grotesque bacchanals. This is just one of many manifestations of his obsessive chilopodophobia; he saw centipedes as an alien horror preying upon the human mind, a natural nemesis to his species.

In 2001, scientists in Thailand discovered the "horrific" Scolopendra cataracta, the first documented giant aquatic centipede, named in the Linnaean fashion for the waterfall-like undulations that allowed it to swim. By the time it revealed itself, it had always been there; a forgotten, mislabeled specimen was found at the Museum of Natural History in London, where it had been waiting for them since 1928.


Every time an antlion feasts, the moon gets a bit darker.

The author may be responsible for at least one instance of this effect.


PALIMPSEST