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Parasitic Butterfly Fools Ants Into Servitude

February 6, 2009

Butterflies are the image of beauty, grace and harmlessness. However, one type has learned parasitic behavior: they fool ants giving them the royal treatment.

The pupa of the Maculina rebeli butterfly emits an aroma that impersonates the ant’s smell, and thus habituates inside the ant nest. Once a caterpillar, they even plead for food similar to the ant larvae, researchers announced in Friday’s publication of the journal Science.

Even more than that, not simply satisfied with food, the butterflies even insist on a special treatment, Jeremy A. Thomas of Britain’s University of Oxford and colleagues stated.

The ant queens emit delicate noises that indicate their elevated status to the regular worker ants. The caterpillars can mimic these sounds, the researchers note, giving them a high status that allows them to be saved before everyone else if the nest is troubled.

When the food shortage is sparse, nurse ants will destroy their larvae and present them to the caterpillars impersonating the queen ants.

Normally, the genuine ant queen and the caterpillar live in different areas of the anthill and do not meet each other, the report said.

However, in an experiment, a butterfly pupa was put in the same space with worker ants and four ant queens. The ant queens attacked the caterpillar, but the workers interceded, fighting their own queens while other workers nursed the pupa.

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