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Monday, August 17, 2009

Alcon blue butterfly larvae enslave ants

The chemical con trick used by Alcon blue butterfly larvae to get ants to take care of them has been detailed by scientists working in Denmark.
The Alcon blue grubs are well known for deceiving the ants into feeding them while letting their own brood starve.

David Nash and colleagues describe in Science Magazine how larval odours mimic those of the ants' own young.

The closer the hydrocarbon chemistry, the more successful the butterfly is in attracting the ants, they report.

"The caterpillars first start developing on a food plant but after they reach a certain stage, they leave the food plant and wait on the ground to be discovered by these ants," explained Dr Nash.

"They mimic the surface chemicals that the ants have on their own brood, and we've been able to show that the closer that mimicry, the faster they get picked up by ants and taken back to the ant nest and put amongst their own brood," he told the magazine's podcast.

"Once they are there, they become highly virulent parasites: they eat some of the brood and they will also get fed by the worker ants, and get fed in preference to the ants' own brood."

The researchers studied several sites in Denmark where the Alcon (Maculinea alcon) caterpillars develop on a marsh plant before Myrmica rubra and Myrmica ruginodis ants bring them into their nests.

By looking at the patterns of infection/resistance and the genetics of different populations, the team was able to describe how the separate chemistries of the butterflies and the ants co-evolve in what amounts to an ongoing "arms race" - giving each animal periods and locations of dominance in their relationship.


Facts about Alcon blue butterflies and their larvae:
1.Their scientific name is Maculinea alcon.

2.These butterflies are only found in Europe and Northern Asia.

3.Alon blue butterflies can be characterized as being "myrmecophile". To be
myrmecophile means that an organism lives in association with ants. Myrmecophily literally means ant-loving and refers to mutualistic associations with ants, though in its more general use the term may also refer to commensal or even parasitic interactions.

4.The butterfly lays its eggs onto the Marsh Gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe); in the region of the Alps they are sometimes also found on the related Willow Gentian (Gentiana asclepiadea). The caterpillars eat no other plants.
Alcon larvae leave the food plant when they have grown sufficiently (4th instar) and wait on the ground below to be discovered by ants. The larvae emit surface chemicals (allomones) that closely match those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae.
When the Alcon larva is fully developed it pupates. Once the adult hatches it must run the gauntlet of escaping. The ants recognise the butterfly to be an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can't grab anything substantial as the newly emerged adult butterfly is thickly clothed in loosely attached scales.
Over time, some ant colonies that are parasitized in this manner will slightly change their larva chemicals as a defense, leading to an evolutionary "arms race" between the two species

The Maculinea alcon larvae are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting a M. alcon larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside.[6]Sources of information used:

Source of image of larvae:
Source of image of Ichneumon eumerus wasp:

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Thoughts worth thinking about

"Our subconscious minds have no sense of humor, play no jokes and cannot tell the difference between reality and an imagined thought or image. What we continually think about eventually will manifest in our lives."-Sidney Madwed

Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every woman and man present their views without penalty, there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.- Albert Einstein Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. - Leo Buscaglia

A person's true wealth is the good he or she does in the world. - Mohammed

Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. -Albert Einstein

The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others. - Ghandi

The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves. - Helen Keller

Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person. - Dr. David M. Burns

Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures. -His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. -

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That's the essence of inhumanity. -George Bernard Shaw

Ego's trick is to make us lose sight of our interdependence. That kind of ego-thought gives us a perfect justification to look out only for ourselves. But that is far from the truth. In reality we all depend on each other and we have to help each other. The husband has to help his wife, the wife has to help the husband, the mother has to help her children, and the children are supposed to help the parents too, whether they want to or not.-Gehlek Rinpoche Source: "The Best Buddhist Writing 2005 pg. 165

The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events---that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies---and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends.