Butterfly tricks ants into caring for its young
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
January 3, 2008
A species of butterfly in Denmark fools ants into raising their larvae by using chemical mimicry, reports research published in the journal Science.
Studying Maculinea alcon, a beautiful blue butterfly, in the marshes of Denmark, David R. Nash and colleagues found that Alcon butterflies fool Myrmica ants into raising their young, by having larvae with an outer coating that mimics that of the ants. The ants care for the Alcon blue butterfly caterpillars — an ant colony parasite — to the detriment of their own offspring.
The researchers say the observed differences in patterns of surface chemistry of caterpillars between locations “indicate an ongoing coevolutionary arms race between the butterflies and Myrmica” ants.
A caterpillar of Maculinea alcon, having recently emerged from a flower of Gentiana pneumonanthe is carried back to a nest of the ant Myrmica rubra by a foraging worker ant. Image courtesy of David Nash
“The more closely the butterfly mimics the ant cuticle’s hydrocarbon chemistry, the more successful the butterfly is in attracting the ants, but this varies from location to location,” explained a statement from Science Express.
Nash and colleagues say the findings should be considered when reintroducing the threatened Alcon blue butterfly into the wild.
CITATION: Nash, D.R. (2007). A Mosaic of Chemical Coevolution in a Large Blue Butterfly. Science Express January 4, 2008