The incredible relationship between ants and butterflies.

Uhusiano ajabu kati ya chungu na vipepeo.

(Scroll down for Swahili)

Insects have evolved some of the most incredible relationships. I’m often surprised that we are not more aware of some of these relationships. One insect- insect relationship that fascinates me is the Lycaenid- Ant relationship. A relationship called myrmecophily- but in the field of guiding, understanding the behavior is always more important than learning terminology. Lycaenids are commonly known as blues, coppers & hairstreaks. If you don’t know what they look like check them out here.

So about 75% of the studied Lycenids have an intimate relationship with ants. For about half of them it is a fairly loose relationship that involves producing honeydew for ants and in return being tended and protected by the ants. For another third, the relationship is so important that these small butterflies would not be able to survive without the ants.

Let’s quickly review butterfly life cycle so that we’re all on the same page. Butterflies lay eggs on a plant and the eggs hatch into caterpillars. Caterpillars usually go through 5 stages called instars before they finally pupate and emerge as an adult. Lycaenid caterpillars usually start life feeding on the plant that they hatched on. Some of the species use chemical attractants and some of them use sound to attract ants. The ants begin to look after the caterpillar. Some species of caterpillar feed the ants honeydew from a gland on their back. Some of them have little tentacles that when extended tend to increase the ants tending them.

Some species of Lycenids do not bother attracting the ants in their first caterpillar stages but fall off the plant. They lie there until an ant finds it and begins to feed on the honeydew. Then the larvae begins to act like an ant larvae and instinctively the ant carries it back to the ant nest. Here the caterpillar becomes predatory, feeding on ant eggs & larvae. The caterpillar produces chemicals that deceive the ants into thinking it is just a big ant larvae so they do not attack it. It then pupates, again protected by the ants, and emerges as an adult.

1. Butterfly female is attracted to the host plant.
2. She lays her eggs.
3. Ant collects the caterpillar.
4. Caterpillar eating the ant eggs.
5. Ands looking after caterpillar.
Image source here.

One African species of Lycenid is closely related to one of the whistling thorn ants. The female butterfly looks for whistling thorns with Crematogaster mimosae and then lays its eggs one at a time on a different leaf. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are tended to by the ants and end up inside the pseudo-galls (domatia) where they then are also fed by food that the ants regurgitate. There is some evidence that the caterpillars also eat on ant larvae in desperate times.

You can read the scientific paper here.

Swahili version

Wadudu wamegeukia kuwa na mahusiano maajabu. Huwa ninashangaa kwamba hatuyafahamu zaidi. Uhusiano mmojawapo unaonishangaza zana ni kati ya jamii ya vipepeo vinavyoitwa Lycenida na Chungu. Huu uhusiano inaitwa ‘myrmecophily’, lakini kwenye fanii ya kuongoza wageni porini ni bora kuelewa tabia kuliko msamiati. Vipepeo hawa wanajulikana kama ‘blues’, ‘coppers’, na ‘hairstreaks’. Kama unapenda kuona mifano angalia hapa.

Karibia asilimia 75% ya Lycenid hawa waliofanyiwa utafiti wana uhusiano wa karibu sana na chungu. Karibia nusu ni uhusiano ni wa kirahisi na kuwahusu viwavi kutengeneza majimaji yenye sukari ya kuwalishia chungu na kulipwa na ulinzi unaotoka kwa chungu. Lakini kwa karibia theluthi ya vipepeo hawa, uhusiano huu na chungu ni muhimu hadi vipepeo wasingeweza kuishi bila chungu hao.

Tupitie mzunguko wa maisha ya vipepeo ili kuhakikisha tuko pamoja. Vipepeo wanataga mayai kwenye mimea na mayai yanaanguliwa kuwa viluilui na hatimaye viwavi. Viwavi wanakua kwa kupitia hatua tano zinazo itwa ‘instar’ kabla ya kuwa vifukofuko na kabla ya kubadilika kuwa vipepeo wazima. Viwavi vya Lycaenid huwa wanaanza maisha yao kwa kula mimea walipoanguliwa. Kuna spishi wengine wanatumia vivutio vya kemikali na wengine wanatumia sauti kuwavutia chungu. Chungu wananza kuwatunza viwavi. Wengine wanatoa minyiri kwa ajili ya kuongeza idadi ya chungu wanaowatunza.  

Spishi nyingine ya Lycenid huwa hawasumbuki kuvutia chungu kwenye hatua za mwanzo ya kuwa kiluwiluwi lakini baada ya kushiba wanadondoka chini. Wanalala chini hadi chungu iwakute halafu kuanza kula ile ‘honeydew’. Tabia ya kiwavi inabadilika kufanana na tabia ya lava ya chungu na hiyo inasababisha tabia kisilika ya chungu kumbeba hadi kwenye kiota chao. Hapa kiluwiluwi kinabadilika kuwa adui na kula mayai na lava ya chungu. Kiwavi anatengeneza kemikali ya kuwadanganya chungu kutokugundua kama ni adui. Anabadilika kuwa pupa humohumo na kutoka kama kipepeo mzima.

1. Kipepeo anatafuta mimea kutagia mayai.
2. Anataga mayai.
3. Kiwavi anachukuliwa na chungu.
4. Kiwavi anakula lava ya chungu.
5. Kiwavi anatunzwa na chungu.
Image source here.

Kuna spishi mmoja ya Kiafrika ya Lycenid ambayo anauhusiano wa karibu na chungu kwenye whistling thorn. Jike wa kipepeo ana tafuta miti aina ya ‘whistling thorn’ wenye chungu aina ya Crematogaster mimosa na kutaga mayai yake mmoja mmoja kwenye majani tofauti. Mayai yakianguliwa viwavi wanatunzwa na chungu na kupelekwa ndani ya zile ‘pseudo-gall’ wanapokula chakula kinachocheuliwa na chungu. Kuna ushahidi pia kwamba hawa viluwiluwi wanakula larva ya chungu wakati wa vipindi vigumu. 

Sources:

Martins, D. Collin S. Congdon, C. & Pierce, N. 2012. Association between the African lycaenid, Anthene usamba, and an obligate acacia ant,Crematogaster mimosae. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Fiedler, K. 2001. Ants that associate with Lycaeninae butterfly larvae:diversity, ecology and biogeography. Blackwell Science.

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