Scientists believed that the life of a Japanese oak blue butterfly caterpillar resembled that of a queen ant due to its loyal ant servants. A new paper, published in the journal Current Biology shows the Japanese species in a new light. A three-member team at Japan’s Kobe University noticed that the ants who served a Japanese oak blue butterfly caterpillar did so constantly. They were pulled away from their daily duties even the search for food. Scientists assumed that they stayed with the caterpillar in some sort of symbiotic relationship for the sake of benefiting from a sugary syrup-like secretion from the caterpillar.
However, a free exchange would see lines of ants being pleased to serve the caterpillar for a time and then move on. The Japanese researchers showed that it was the same ants which constantly stood guard over the caterpillar.
With the help of both chemical and visual signals, scientists discovered that the caterpillar actually controls its “bodyguards.” The ants who sip its sugary secretions begin to take cues from the movement of the caterpillar’s ‘tentacles’ and abide by its instructions.
The caterpillar must secure safe transformation into a butterfly. During this metamorphosis, it needs protection from predators such as wasps and spiders. Its pheromones leave the vulnerable creature with an aggressive brigade of loyal ant bodyguards.
“There are glandular cells near the tentacles that could be secreting chemical signals,” researcher Masaru Hojo told New Scientist. “It is possible that both visual and chemical signals are stimulating the ant aggression.”