This Rare Butterfly Lives Side By Side With Ants

The Adeloptypa annulifera is a neotropical butterfly with a strange and fascinating life cycle. While it has long been known to fraternize with ants—and its wing patterns even look like a cluster of ants—researchers Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz recently discovered just how far the insect’s connection to the other species goes.

The two stumbled upon the butterfly species while exploring southeastern Peru and quickly realized it had some pretty strange habits. In the short video “Butterfly Discovery in the Amazon,” Torres and Pomerantz explain that the Adeloptypa annulifera spends its entire life living amongst ants. At the larval stage, ants actually help care for the insects, protecting them from harm. In return, the caterpillars provide valuable nutrients for the ants. But later in life, the relationship between the ants and butterflies becomes less harmonious: Torres and Pomerantz found that, as fully formed butterflies, the Adeloptypa annulifera begin stealing food from the ants and blocking them from food sources, becoming what’s called a “kleptoparasite.”

“This is just a lesson that if you look closely you might find something totally new, and this is just the first step,” says Torres. “There’s much more work to be done here.” The two scientists published a full life cycle study of the Adeloptypa annulifera, and summarize their most exciting discoveries in the video above.

[h/t Digg]

Banner Image Credit: The Jungle Diaries, YouTube

Adria C. LeBoeuf
Ants Communicate by Swapping Spit
Adria C. LeBoeuf
Adria C. LeBoeuf

Some insects’ mouth-to-mouth exchanges transmit tiny molecules of hormones and other important chemical information, according to scientists writing in the journal eLife.

The spit-swapping behavior is called trophallaxis. Many entomologists who witnessed the behavior in ants and other social insects believed the bugs were using it to efficiently share food. But some researchers noticed that carpenter ants were trophallax-ing in non-dining contexts, like when one ant would return to its family after being away. The scientists wondered if the ants’ kissing juice contained more than just calories.

They brought lots of ants into the lab to sample what the ants were sharing. At first, the researchers tried just waiting around until one ant initiated trophallaxis, but that mostly resulted in a lot of waiting and very little fluid. Eventually, they figured out that they could gently squeeze the ants’ bellies until the liquid came dribbling out of their mouths.

The researchers ran chemical and genetic tests on the fluid to determine its contents, and they found all kinds of interesting things. The liquid did indeed include particles of food and digestive enzymes, but it also contained several growth-related proteins and a juvenile hormone that can influence an insect’s development.

To find out how these compounds might affect a trophallaxis recipient, the researchers added the juvenile hormone to the meals they were feeding adult ants. The adults passed the hormone-charged liquid onto their larvae. The larvae loved it. Individuals who had taken in the hormone were twice as likely as others to survive to adulthood.

First author Adria LeBoeuf works at the Center for Integrative Genomics in Switzerland. She says the ants could very well be using trophallaxis to decide which larvae succeed. “When the ants feed their larvae, they aren’t just feeding them food, they are casting quantitative ballots for their colony, administering different amounts of growth-promoting components to influence the next generation,” she said in a statement.

Larvae chosen to receive the liquid are being nourished in more ways than one. In some ways, LeBoeuf says, it’s a lot like mammals’ milk. It also suggests that “…the oral exchange of fluids, such as saliva, in other animals might also serve previously unexpected roles." Yum.

Josh Cassidy/KQED
Watch These Peruvian Tree-Protecting Ants in Ultra HD
Josh Cassidy/KQED
Josh Cassidy/KQED

In the Peruvian rainforest, a mutualistic relationship thrives between Inga tree saplings and native ants. The young trees need the ants as defense, so insects don't eat their leaves. The ants get "paid" for this defensive role using nectar provided by the tree.

In this beautiful Ultra-HD video from Deep Look, we see how this relationship works—and how it breaks down when clever Riodinid caterpillars come along!

The moral of this story? Never trust ants to protect you.

For more discussion, read this KQED article. Also fascinating is this paper by Suzanne Koptur (PDF link) describing the same ecosystem. There's also a nice It's Okay To Be Smart video on ant/tree mutualism.

And if you enjoyed this, watch another Deep Look video: What Do Ants Do With the Leaves They Carry Around?

(Photo courtesy of Josh Cassidy/KQED.)


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