Skip to main content

Photos: Butterflies Snag Goo from Unwitting Ants

Butterflies and ants

(Image credit: Phil Torres)

A new study has revealed a strange relationship between an Amazonian butterfly species and its neighboring ants — the butterflies steal the ants' yummy and nutritious goo. Here's a look at the first images showing a behavior called kleptoparasitism between adult butterflies and ants.

[Read the full story on the butterfly-ant relationship]

Butterfly mooches

(Image credit: Phil Torres)

Researchers Aaron Pomerantz and Phil Torres encountered the bizarre relationship while working at a field station in the Peruvian Amazon. They noticed that the butterflies were always spotted hanging around ants, and wanted to understand why.

Elusive species

(Image credit: Phil Torres)

Though the butterfly species, Adelotypa annulifera, was discovered a century ago, little was known about its life cycle. So the researchers set out to find the larvae, or caterpillar of the species, which had never been spotted before.

[Read the full story on the butterfly-ant relationship]

Bamboo dwellers

(Image credit: Aaron Pomerantz)

After weeks of research, the team peeled back a leaf on a bamboo plant and found the larvae, then studied their behavior to understand their life cycle.

Larval features

The team took stunning photos of the insects throughout their life cycle, and found that the caterpillars have a tentacle nectary organ, which produces a nutritious mixture of amino acids and sugars that ants often feed on.

Protein snack

(Image credit: Aaron Pomerantz)

It turns out that the caterpillars and a ants may have a mutually beneficial relationship. The caterpillars produce a tasty snack of amino acids and sugars, and the ants do bodyguard duty for the caterpillars.

Ants and larva

Here, an ant and caterpillars of the species nestle together inside the bamboo leaf.

Ants watch over the larvae

(Image credit: Aaron Pomerantz)

Here, bullet ants, which are known for their painful stings, watch vigilantly over the caterpillars.

Gooey treat

(Image credit: Aaron Pomerantz)

Here, the larvae hang out in close association with the ants.

[Read the full story on the butterfly-ant relationship]

Ants and caterpillars

The ants and caterpillars interact.

[Read the full story on the butterfly-ant relationship]

One-way street

(Image credit: Phil Torres)

As the caterpillars morph into butterflies, however, the relationship changes. The butterflies continue to mooch off the ants, stealing the sticky sap of the bamboo plant from the ants.