Most animals that we know of instinctively hunt for their food, but an Amazonian butterfly simply steals its food from defenseless ants. The butterfly is named Allotype annulifera, and it survives by stealing the bamboo secretions that ants forage and depend on for sustenance. Scientists regard this behavior as a bizarre phenomenon.
There is term to describe this sort of interspecies theft and it is known as “kleptoparasitism.” This particular species of butterfly represents one of the rare instances of this type of animal behavior. The species was discovered a century ago, however, very little was know about this type of butterfly until this study and a recent resurgence of interest.
Before the butterfly forms and is a caterpillar the relationship between ants and caterpillars is mutually beneficial. The ants will guard the caterpillar from predators while the caterpillar allows the ants to feed on the caterpillar’s nutritious secretions. The caterpillar will seek the protection of ants by luring them into its area with a sort of musical sound they are able to produce with an organ that causes vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear.
It is when caterpillars become butterflies that the theft begins. The butterflies will even fool ants into thinking that they are one of them with the ant-like dots visible on the butterfly’s wings. It is possible that the ants still receive some benefit from their relationship with butterflies, but if they do, scientists are unable to ascertain what that benefit is, and scientists feel safe in assuming that the butterflies are flat guilty of thievery.
Researchers in charge of the recent study that uncovered this behavior are unsure why the ants do not act in defense of their food. The ants’ tolerance for this butterflies behavior is likely due to their possible inability to process what is going on, and the ants are perhaps not even aware that their precious food is being robbed by mischievous butterflies. The ants also suffer poor eyesight, which is probably why they mistake a butterfly’s wings for one of their own kind. The researchers have not dismissed the possibility that the butterflies may release pheromone that alters the ants’ perception allowing the butterflies to operate as they please.
In what manner could a colony of ants defend their food from the larger butterfly?