This Thieving Butterfly Turns Vicious Red Ants Into Brainwashed Bodyguards

These red ants are brainwashed slaves to this particular butterfly. Phil Torres

The Amazon rainforest is 5.5 million square kilometers (2.12 million square miles) in size, so it’s understandable that there’s so much hiding within its foresty walls that we have yet to discover. Just recently, an unusual type of reef was found concealed at the mouth of the Amazon river, much to the surprise and delight of biologists.

Now, a strange, novel partnership between two humble creatures has been found within the darkest depths of the rainforest. Writing in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, the two researchers claiming credit for this discovery note that this is the first documented case of adult butterflies coexisting with ants.

Many butterfly species are known to have a symbiotic relationship between their caterpillars and their ants, with the former using a series of biochemical drugs to turn the latter into “zombie bodyguards,” in order to stop opportunistic predators like spiders gobbling them up. The ants get to feast on floral sugar droplets in return, but the caterpillar definitely has far more control in this somewhat abusive relationship.

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That's right. Do my bidding, my crimson minions. Phil Torres

This new study points out that this particular tropical butterfly makes its relationship with its co-opted ants even more one-sided. Not only are the ants used as bodyguards to protect the flying, flapping insect from predators, but they actually seem to get nothing at all out of it, except for the constant threat of being eaten. These butterflies are effectively their forceful overlords.

“When they are caterpillars, the relationship with ants is somewhat mutual,” Aaron Pomerantz, an integrative biologist at the University of Florida and one of the study’s co-authors, told IFLScience. “However, we found that the adult butterflies don't appear to give the ants anything in return and even steal [their sugar droplets].”

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