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article imageThe Ant and the Butterfly

By Anniedup     Aug 5, 2007 in Environment
A tragic end to an extraordinary partnership, but thanks to the intervention of The Joint Committee for the Conservation of the Large Blue Butterfly, at least one species survived.
In 1979, the large blue butterfly was declared extinct in Britain. It had always been rare, but wildlife experts did not understand what had caused it to die out – until they studied the butterfly’s strange lifestyle in other countries. For ten months of its life as a caterpillar, the large blue lives below ground inside a red ant’s nest, tricking its host into believing it is an ant grub.
The butterfly, Maculinea arion, lays its eggs on the leaves of wild thyme. When the eggs hatch, the newborn caterpillars feed on the plants for about three weeks, but then fall to the ground and wait to be found by a passing red ant.
When stroked by the ants’ antennae, the caterpillar releases pheromones – chemical smells – that convince the ants that it is one of their own, and it exudes a sugary substance that the ants like to eat. So they carry the caterpillar back to their nest. There it stays for ten months, gorging itself on the ant grubs in the nest. Then in late May or June, the butterfly emerges, spreads its wings and flies away.
Scientists looked at the sites in Britain previously occupied by the butterfly.
More than half had been ploughed up or built over, yet others seemed hardly to have changed. Thyme was still abundant and there were plenty of red ants on the ground. There was no clue as to what had caused the large blue to become extinct.
Butterfly expert Jeremy Thomas then discovered that the butterfly was more specialized than had previously been thought. It depends on one specific red ant, Myrmica sabuleti, and in all the sites investigated this species had died out.
Myrmica sabuleti builds its nest in short-cropped grass on warm, south-facing slopes, where the Sun’s heat bakes the ground. If the grass is too long, the ant freezes to death. Cattle and rabbits had ones grazed the land, but there were now fewer cattle and myxomatosis had killed most of the rabbits. The grass grew long, and Myrmica sabuleti perished. Other species of ant, which could survive the cold, took over the territory – but they were of no use to the large blue, and it was doomed to extinction.
But there is an upswing to this tragic partnership, thanks to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan it has since been re-established successfully at five sites in south west England using Swedish stock.
Current action
The Joint Committee for the Conservation of the Large Blue Butterfly was formed in 1962.
The butterfly has been re-established at five sites in England under EN`s Species Recovery Programme, after considerable research by ITE.
A full action plan for this species has been published by Butterfly Conservation.”
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