Trying to steal from ants, particularly aggressive jungle ants such as bullet ants, doesn’t go well for most insects. That’s why researchers were surprised to find that Amazonian metalmark butterflies can feed on nectar from bamboo shoots protected by those ants without any repercussions. The exact reason why those butterflies get away with it is unknown, but researchers have come up with a few theories.
This feeding situation isn’t the only time the butterflies interact with the ants; in fact, they have a relationship with the ants from the beginning of their lifespan. According to National Geographic, in their larval stage, these butterflies secrete a nutritious goo that the ants eat. In return, the ants protect the larvae from predators.
Once those caterpillars become butterflies, that partnership ends, and the butterflies have to fly away to avoid getting eaten by the ants. However, when they fly back to take nectar from the bamboo shoots, the ants ignore them. Some brazen butterflies have even taken nectar right out of the mandibles of ants without getting attacked.
Why do they get away with it? Entomology Today reports that the pattern on the butterfly’s wings does look very similar to the ants, although this protection is more effective against other predators that don’t want to get bitten by ants. Because ants have poor eyesight, it’s doubtful that the pattern tricks them.
It could be chemical trickery, with the butterflies using a pheromone from when they were larvae to fool the ants into ignoring them. Because of their poor eyesight, ants primarily communicate using chemicals, and butterflies wouldn’t be the first creatures to use that against them.
Check out their unique relationship in the video below.
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