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Offbeat Israel: The Promised Land for Antlions?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Are national characteristics catching on? Do you ever find yourself being a little bit less polite when you visit Israel? A new study by the University of Haifa suggests that even rodents seem to act one way in Israel and another way elsewhere.

Here is the mystery that researchers set out to solve. The boundary between Israel and Jordan is a man-made outcome of British rule in the Middle East in the last century. So how come rodents behave differently on each side?

Jordanian gerbils live life with a far more carefree attitude than Israeli gerbils, which conduct themselves with a great deal of caution. And okay — Israel is supposed to be the Promised Land where milk and honey flows and agriculture thrives, but the Bible never said it’s a Promised Land for antlions did it? So why are antlions, an insect whose larvae are called doodlebugs in North America, more fertile around here than in Jordan?

The Haifa academics trying to answer these questions worked in cooperation with Jordanian researchers examining a variety of reptile, mammal, beetle, spider and antlion species on either side of the border. They wanted to find out whether the border — unknown to the species — could affect differences between them and their numbers on either side of the frontier, even though they share identical climate conditions.

They concluded that the differences reflect the major impact that humans have on wildlife — and given that Israel only became independent in 1948 and Jordan two years earlier, how quickly. On the Israeli side of the border, there are organized agricultural farms that play host to the red fox. On the Jordanian side, nomadic shepherding and traditional farming are less hospitable to the red fox. Given that on the Jordanian side, the red fox is far less common, so that Jordanian gerbils can allow themselves to be more carefree.

As for the high fertility rate of antlions in Israel, they don’t have the Biblical blessedness of the land to thank, but rather the Dorcas gazelle and Israeli environmental laws. This gazelle serves as an “environmental engineer” of sorts, as it breaks the earth’s dry surface and enables ant lions to dig their tunnels. The Dorcas gazelle is a protected animal in Israel, while hunting it in Jordan is permitted and compromises the presence of the Jordanian antlions’ soil engineers.


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