Ants and caterpillar relationship

WATCH: This Butterfly and Ant's Relationship Is Complicated | HuffPost Australia

ants and caterpillar relationship

Talking Caterpillars: Interspecies Communication in a Butterfly-Ant Mutualism A surprising number of organisms participate in "mutualistic" relationships with. Docile ants become aggressive guard dogs after a secret signal from their caterpillar overlord. The caterpillars of the Japanese oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica) grow up wrapped inside leaves on oak trees. To protect themselves against predators like spiders and wasps, they. arrive to snatch and eat the caterpillar, the friendly ants fight them off, This amazing relationship is sometimes referred to as mutualism.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard. I pulled the leaf back and to my utter shock, found myself staring directly at two caterpillars nestled against the bamboo and an agitated ant hovering over the Lepidoptera larvae.

My heart was pounding -- did I really just find our caterpillars in this vast rainforest!? Clearly they were myrmecophilous, as the ant was trying to protect them. The caterpillars later turned into pupae. Although excited about the find, I knew the job wasn't done. This could be any species of caterpillar, so I knew I had to watch them turn into pupae and then adults in order to confirm that these belonged to the same butterfly species.

I checked up on the caterpillars at that spot and took photos and video. After a couple of days, I found our little critters in the same location, but this time they had transformed into pupae!

I gently collected them and brought them to a small insect cage at the Tambopata Research Center to see if they would emerge as butterflies. I had my fingers crossed; hopefully they would survive to adulthood. The immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants.

Animal Behavior: Caterpillar-Ant Communication

Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant. First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant. Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant. Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants. Final instar larva with E. Days later, I walked past the little insect cage and noticed some activity. One of the pupae had successfully eclosed!

ants and caterpillar relationship

It was the moment of truth -- what butterfly was it? My jaw dropped when I noticed it was, in fact, the same butterfly Adelotypa annulifera that Phil had taken pictures. That means we had just completed the entire life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to larvae to pupae and finally adult.

Symbiosis -- Defensive Examples

Now felt like we had enough material to write this up as an official scientific publication. Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo. Ants touching the butterfly wings with antennae.

  • WATCH: This Butterfly and Ant's Relationship Is... Complicated

Ant crawling on butterfly wing. Ants touching butterfly abdomen. Butterflies and ants utilizing extrafloral nectary resources on bamboo. Butterfly drinking bamboo fluid from the ant. We think the fact that butterflies steal a resource from the ants and let the ants crawl all over them indicates that some complex chemical signaling is going on.

Perhaps the butterflies are utilizing a pheromone from their larval stage, potentially allowing the butterfly to take advantage of the ants, which would normally tear a fragile butterfly to shreds. The three red spots on the butterfly wing also look strikingly like the red ants and perhaps serve as a form of mimicry.

If a butterfly looks like red ants that bite and sting, a bird may be less inclined to eat it. However, it should be noted that these are just our hypotheses at the moment and, like any hypothesis, should be rigorously tested before we can claim to back it up.

So to solve this mystery, Phil and I decided to collaborate.

WATCH: This Butterfly and Ant's Relationship Is... Complicated

I was making a return trip to this exact field site in the coming months, so I set out to uncover the missing pieces of this puzzle. Bamboo stalk with a leaf wrapped around the shoot near the base of the plant. The challenge with this type of fieldwork is that the Amazon rainforest is huge, and the critters we are looking for are tiny. Since Phil observed the butterflies on bamboo, I ventured out to the same habitat, a trek from the Tambopata Research Center. The jungle was particularly hot, humid, rainy and muddy during that expedition, but I was determined to find our caterpillars and butterflies.

After hours of hiking through the Peruvian Amazon and getting soaked by the rain, I found myself in the bamboo forest where we knew our butterflies liked to hang out. I checked dozens of bamboo plants but it seemed futile -- no signs of our butterflies.

But persistence is the key to fieldwork. I soon saw a young bamboo shoot poking out of the mud, and noticed a leaf near the base of the bamboo, close to the ground.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard. I pulled the leaf back and to my utter shock, found myself staring directly at two caterpillars nestled against the bamboo and an agitated ant hovering over the Lepidoptera larvae. My heart was pounding -- did I really just find our caterpillars in this vast rainforest!?

Clearly they were myrmecophilous, as the ant was trying to protect them. The caterpillars later turned into pupae.

ants and caterpillar relationship

Although excited about the find, I knew the job wasn't done. This could be any species of caterpillar, so I knew I had to watch them turn into pupae and then adults in order to confirm that these belonged to the same butterfly species.

I checked up on the caterpillars at that spot and took photos and video. After a couple of days, I found our little critters in the same location, but this time they had transformed into pupae! I gently collected them and brought them to a small insect cage at the Tambopata Research Center to see if they would emerge as butterflies.

ants and caterpillar relationship

I had my fingers crossed; hopefully they would survive to adulthood. The immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants. Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant. First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant. Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant. Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants.

ants and caterpillar relationship

Final instar larva with E. Days later, I walked past the little insect cage and noticed some activity. One of the pupae had successfully eclosed!

ants and caterpillar relationship

It was the moment of truth -- what butterfly was it? My jaw dropped when I noticed it was, in fact, the same butterfly Adelotypa annulifera that Phil had taken pictures. That means we had just completed the entire life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to larvae to pupae and finally adult. Now felt like we had enough material to write this up as an official scientific publication.

Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo.