Caterpillar chemical turns ants into bodyguards

Caterpillar chemical turns ants into bodyguards
Arhopala japonica. Credit: Wikipedia

A trio of researchers with Kobe University in Japan has found that lycaenid butterfly caterpillars of the Japanese oakblue variety, have dorsal nectary organ secretions that cause ants that eat the material to abandon their fellow ants to instead hang out with and defend the caterpillar against enemies. In their paper published in the journal Current Biology, Masaru Hojo, Naomi Pierce and Kazuki Tsuji describe their research into the relationship between the two creatures and why they believe the nature of that relationship needs to be reclassified.

Scientists have studied Japanese oakblue butterflies before, noting that ants seem to guard the young caterpillars, but until now that relationship was described as reciprocal, both seemed to derive some benefit. The caterpillars got protection and the ants got a nice meal. Now however, according to this new research, the ants may not be willing partners.

In studying the caterpillars in their natural environment, the researchers noted that the ants did not just eat the free meal and leave, instead, they stayed with the caterpillar—that got them to wondering if there was more to the relationship than has been thought.

To find out, they brought several specimens of both creatures back to their lab for testing. Some of the ants were allowed to feed on the caterpillar secretions, while others were not. The ants that ate the secretions stayed with the caterpillar, while those that did not, wandered away. Even more surprising, the researchers found that whenever the caterpillar raised its tentacles, flipping them—the ants became aggressive, actively seeking out enemies, trying to make them go away. The researchers believe flipping its tentacles is a defensive move by the . Ants that did not eat the secretions did not attack in response to tentacle actions. The researchers also dissected the ants and found that those that ate the secretions had lower levels of dopamine in their brains, which is usually associated with degree of aggression in organisms. They then gave the ants that had eaten the secretions from the caterpillar a drug called reserpine—it blocks the transport of dopamine. That caused the to ignore tentacle flipping and to abandon the caterpillar.

The ingredients in the caterpillar secretions have not yet been identified, but the researchers believe it likely contains chemicals that impact dopamine levels in ant brains, causing them to stay with the caterpillar and to protect it when danger arrives.

Explore further

Butterflies deceive ants using chemical strategies

More information: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.07.016
Journal information: Current Biology

© 2015

Citation: Caterpillar chemical turns ants into bodyguards (2015, August 3) retrieved 16 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 03, 2015
Not surprising. My cat makes me feed and open doors for it :-)

Aug 03, 2015
And what secretions of your cat do you eat to make that happen uncontrollably ?

Aug 03, 2015
Chemical Brainwashing, see even nature approves.

Aug 04, 2015
"And what secretions of your cat do you eat to make that happen uncontrollably ?" Why, sebaceous skin surface lipids, naturally. They lie along the midline of the feline (and canine) beast extending to the tail in dogs. (Or did you dolts really thing that wagging of that tail meant that the animal was "happy to see you"?) The feline is closer to human, so they need to do less work.
Nicholson, B. (2011). Exocrinology the Science of Love, Amazon digital books. And yes, I'm smarter than you are, by a long, long way.

Aug 09, 2015
I think cats posess's a parasite which invades the brains of rodents. It is also theorised to affect humans too. True story :-)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more