RECORD: Armstrong, Patrick. 2002. Antlions: A link between Charles Darwin and an early Suffolk naturalist. Transactions of the Suffolk Natural History Society 38: 81-86.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned and OCRed by John van Wyhe. 6.2008. RN1

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[page] 81



E. J. M. Kirby's interesting and detailed paper "Antlions in the Suffolk Sandlings" in Transactions 37 (2001), contains a number of remarkable instances of serendipity. The author mentions the distribution of this group as including Australia (where it is very common, especially in sandy localities similar to those described in Kirby's article): the writings of Charles Darwin on this type of organism, which he encountered in New South Wales on 19 January 1836 are amongst the most enigmatic of the Victorian naturalist's annotations on the southern continent, and it has been suggested, represent a significant change in the direction of his thinking. Moreover, Darwin's note on Australian antlions was strongly influenced by the writings of another entomologist by the name of Kirby - the Rev. William Kirby, FRS, (1759-1850) founder member of the Linnean Society, distinguished Suffolk entomologist, Vicar of Barham, East Suffolk for over sixty years. And co-incidentally William Kirby was also a person who knew the natural history of the Sandlings well; a manuscript detailing a botanizing excursion he made to East Suffolk in 1787 was published in these Transactions in 1959 (Gathorne-Hardy, 1959). [For further details of the occurrence of antlions in the Suffolk Sandlings, see also Plant (1998.).]

The note in Charles Darwin's Diary (for 19 January 1836) reads as follows:

...I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, "Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete". Whilst thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant:- a fly fell in & immediately disappeared; then came a large but unwary Ant. His struggles to escape being very violent, the little jets of sand described by Kirby (Vol. I. p. 425) were promptly directed against him.- His fate however, was better than that of the fly's. Without doubt the predaecious Larva belongs to the same genus but to a different species from the [European] kind.- Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple, & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe. A Geologist perhaps would suggest that the periods of Creation have been distinct & remote the one from the other; that the Creator rested from his labor.

(Barlow, 1933)

It could be argued that the use of the words Creator and Creation (and their capitalisation), the notion of more than one distinct episodes of creation, and the sentence: "The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe",

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[page] 82 Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 38

William Kirby (1759-1850) Suffolk Rector, entomologist and botanist. From the frontispiece of volume III of Introduction to Entomology.

signify a Creationist, Deistic approach, reflecting Genesis chapter 1; the final words "the Creator rested in his labor" echoing the words of Genesis, 2, vv. 2-3. Darwin used capitals for many nouns. Nicholas and Nicholas (1989) hint at the possibility that all this was a religious disguise, as the Diary was partly written for his family (especially his sisters), and Darwin wanted to conceal from them the fact that he had abandoned the religious outlook, and adopted an evolutionary point of view. However the evidence for this is not strong; although here and there in the notes from the Beagle period there are vague hints that the idea of mutability of species went though his mind, all the evidence suggests that it was not until after his return to England, in about March 1837, that his "conversion" to the evolutionary outlook occurred (Sulloway, 1982). Although not particularly religious, at the time of his embarkation on the Beagle, and for much of the voyage, he probably accepted much of the Genesis Creation narrative as an accurate account of life's origins: ideas reinforced in his undergraduate days by his reading of William Paley's (1802) Natural Theology, which argued that the complexity of the living world and level of adaptation of organisms to their environment and way of life provide evidence for the existence of the Deity: design implies a designer.

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 38 (2002)


It is interesting to consider the context in which this reflection took place; the sunny bank was probably that of Cox's River, between Blackheath and Bathurst, NSW. Darwin had travelled for several hours through open forest of eucalypts, acacias and casurinas, often burnt. He had had been hunting for emu and kangaroo with a local property manager, and seen a flock of cockatoos (probably yellow-crested), and "a few most beautiful parrots" He had encountered groups of hunting Aborigines. He was very conscious of travelling through a very different environment from any that he had seen before.

But there was more to it than that. A few hours before he encountered the antlion, he had dragged a kangaroo-rat out of a hollow tree, "as big as a rabbit, but with the figure of a Kangaroo"; he had had seen several platypi playing in a chain of ponds that represented the dry summer remnants of a river; they "might easily have been mistaken for many water rats", although when his companion shot one he could see that they were quite different - "a most extraordinary animal"; there were birds "something like the [European| magpie" but although black and white, were very different in structure. He heard tell of "tigers and hyenas", called such "simply because they are Carnivorous" although very different from animals with these names elsewhere. And the antlion (the larval form of an insect related to the lacewings, family Myrmeleontidae) was remarkably similar to that described by William Kirby from Europe, in its appearance and its behaviour, and yet also subtly different: in the margin beside the sentence: "Without doubt this ... Larva belongs to the same genus but to a different species from the Europaean kind" are written the words "NB The pitfall was not above half the size of the one described by Kirby." Darwin was noticing an environment that was different, with different organisms, isolated from the rest of the world and yet there were creatures that, even if they belonged to different species, genera or families, resembled those with which he was familiar. Of the "two distinct Creators", one of Australia, one of the rest of the world, he mused, "their object has been the same & certainly in each case the end is complete." Today we might argue that the platypus and the water rat, the Australian magpie and its European analogue, the two species of antlion, the marsupial carnivores and their placental mammal equivalents, filled similar ecological niches, and had been subjected to similar selection or adaptation pressures. Darwin was not able to go as far at the time, but he was on his way. He was not an evolutionist when he lay on the grassy bank in New South Wales that hot, hot summer day in January 1836, but he was already beginning to think ecologically, in terms of whole environments, and to wonder about the manner in which individual organisms related to their surroundings.

William Kirby was an important node in a naturalists' network of consisting of many of his family and friends (many of them clergy): he came from a long line of naturalists and local historians (Armstrong, 2000). As well as doing important work in botany, and writing a monograph on bees on the basis of his work in Suffolk, in 1802, he later, with a businessman from Yorkshire, William Spence, wrote the four volume Introduction to Entomology. This was published between 1815 and 1826, and was extremely

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[page] 84 Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 38

popular. It is written, like Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbome, as a series of letters. The style - somewhat wordy and anthropomorphic - appears quaint to the modern ear, but the descriptions include fine observational detail. Here is part of the account of the European antlion's construction of its conical pits, and their use:

[The antlion] proceeds to excavate the cavity by throwing out the sand in a mode not less singular than effective. Placing itself in the inside of the circle which it has traced, it thrusts the hind part of its body under the sand, and with one of its fore-legs, serving as a shovel, it charges its flat and square head with a load, which it immediately throws over the outside of the circle with a jerk strong enough to carry it to a distance of several inches...Walking backwards, and constantly repeating the process, it soon arrives at the part of the circle from which it set out...

When all obstacles are overcome, and the pit is finished, it presents itself as a conical hole rather more than two inches deep, gradually contracting to a point at the bottom, and about three inches wide at the top. The ant-lion now takes its station at the bottom of the pit, and, that its gruff appearance may not scare the passengers that approach its den, covers itself with sand...

[If the antlion perceives an insect prey to be escaping] he hastily shovels loads of sand upon his head, and vigorously throws them up in quick succession upon the escaping insect, which attached by a such a heavy from below and treading on so unstable a path, is almost invariably carried to the bottom.

(Kirby and Spence, 1828, pages 427-30.)

Copies of all four volumes (albeit of different editions) of Kirby's book were aboard the Beagle (Burkhardt and Smith, 1985). Darwin used and annotated them frequently, referring to them in several places in his notes. It cannot be imagined that Charles Darwin would have taken the volumes of Introduction to Entomology with him into the bush, so it must be assumed that he wrote up his notes on the Beagle a few days later from rough notes made en route (after 28 January 1836) - this was his usual procedure. The account of the antlions, the speculations on a separate Australian creation, with its component parts -Eucalypts, acacias and fire, kangaroos and kangaroo-rats, parrots and platypi, Aborigines and antlions - fitting together: "the end ... complete" - must therefore have been written retrospectively and reflectively.

One of William Kirby's strengths as a naturalist, typical of many 19th Century parson-naturalists, was his long association with, and intimate knowledge of, a particular locality; he is said to have collected 153 species of wild bees from his own Suffolk parish. Frequently Kirby comments, in his writings, on the behaviour of insects - the passage above is typical - as well as their form and habitat. Whether this was an influence on Darwin is not clear, but Darwin also frequently described animal behaviour (insects and other invertebrates, mammals, birds) during the Beagle period. Some of accounts are

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 38 (2002)


anecdotal and anthropomorphic, but he also suggests that a comparison of the behavioural characteristics of organisms might supplement morphology as an aid to taxonomy or classification. He comments on instinct, and in a few places evaluates behavioural traits against habitat and environment (Armstrong, 1993). This development of an ethological approach (the study of behaviour in the natural environment) is important because the study of behaviour became an important theme in Darwin's later work, as in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. Although the note on the New South Wales antlion is brief, it is very perceptive: there is excellent detail, the behaviour of the larva in directing "little jets of sand" against the prey is mentioned, it shows the comparative approach, some quantitative comment on the size of the "conical pitfall" is implied, and if we consider the whole account of the forest of which the antlion anecdote forms a part, it is remarkably integrative. Alas we cannot be absolutely certain of the exact species that Darwin found - there are dozens of species in Australia. Despite having collected thousands of insect specimens at the places visited in the course of his voyage, he does not seem to have taken the antlion specimen (Smith, 1987).

A "sunny bank" in New South Wales and a Suffolk parish; Charles Robert Darwin originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection and the Rev. William Kirby, parson-naturalist. A tiny insect larva connects them all. There were a multitude of influences on Darwin during his Australian sojourn (Armstrong, 1985) and Kirby's insect book and the observation of the antlion were but two. But they provided the stimulus for an important piece of writing (much altered when the Diary was edited to become 77?e Voyage of the Beagle, particularly in the later editions [post 1845]). In his account of a seemingly trifling incident we can see the young Darwin's magnificent powers of observation, his comparative approach that was the secret of his success, his integrative view, is interest in the behaviour of organisms, and the evolution of his thinking. Darwin was not yet an evolutionist, but he was one who already had a distinctive view on the nature of creation.


Armstrong, P. H. (1985). Charles Darwin in Western Australia: a young

scientist's perception of an environment. Nedlands, University of Western

Australia Press. Armstrong, P. H. (1993). An ethologist aboard HMS Beagle: the young

Darwin's observations on animal behaviour. Journal of the History of Behavioral Science 29: 339-344. Armstrong, P. H. (2000). The English parson-naturalist: a companionship between science and religion. Gracewing Press, Leominster. Barlow, N. (ed.) (1933). Charles Darwin's diary of the voyage of HMS

Beagle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (This is the most widely used transcription of the diary; there are others that differ from it in minor ways.)

Burkhardt, R. F. & Smith, S. (eds.) (1985). The correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Appendix 4, Books on board the Beagle, 553-566.

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[page] 86 Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 38

Darwin, C. R. (1872). The expression of emotions in man and animals. John Murray, London.

Gathorne-Hardy, R. (1959). 'Iter litorale'. Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 11: 123-137.

Kirby, E. J. M. (2001). Antlions in the Suffolk Sandlings. Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc., 37: 57-65.

Kirby, W & Spence, W. (1815-26). An introduction to entomology, in 4 vols, London. Darwin had the 3rd edition of vol. 1; it was heavily annotated (see Burkhardt, 1985). I used the 5th (1828) edition: it is apparently very similar to the edition aboard the Beagle.

Nicholas, F. W, & Nicholas, J. M. (1989). Charles Darwin in Australia. Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Plant, C.W. (1998). Investigations into the distribution, status and ecology of the ant-lion Euroleon nostras (Geoffroy in Fourcroy, 1785) (Neuroplcra, Myrmeleontidae) in England during 1997. Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc., 34: 69-79.

Smith, K. G. V. (ed.) (1987). Darwin's insects. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 14(1).

Sulloway, F. J. (1982). Darwin's conversion: the Beagle voyage and its aftermath. Journal of the History of Biology 15: 361-390.

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