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article imageButterflies sounding like ants to sneak into nests

By Tim Sandle     Oct 31, 2014 in Science
Which insects live in ants’ nests? Not only ants is the answer. Other insects take advantage of the nutrient rich hobbles. To get round this, some are adept at imitating ants.
For the insects that hide out inside ant nests they need to display behaviours that allow themselves to pass off as ants. This can either be by secreting certain chemicals or by creating sounds that mimic the communication signals produced by ants.
The production of sound to trick ant colonies into thinking that there are no intruders is a relatively recent discovery. Biologists have studied Maculinea butterflies (also known as the large blue butterfly). These insects infiltrate the nests of Myrmica ants and spend most of their lives hidden within the nests. They get around not being detected by mimicking the sounds produced by the ants themselves.
The scientists have, through the use of sophisticated sounds measuring devices, determined that there are similarities in the patterns of sounds made by the butterflies and the ants, and that the butterflies are mimicking the ant noises.
The lifecycle of the Maculinea butterfly is fascinating. The insects are first deposited as eggs onto the leaves of plants. On hatching, larvae gorge themselves for about ten days on the plant. They then drop to the ground and wait to be found and ferried into a nest by a Myrmica worker ant.
Once safely inside the ant nest, the butterfly caterpillars secrete chemicals similar to those an ant larva would and produce specific sounds. This tricks the worker ants into feeding them. Often the caterpillars are fed first and fed most, even in times of scarcity when the real ant larvae go hungry.
The research was carried out at the University of Turin in Italy and the results were reported to a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. The research is part of a continuing project to assess the sounds made by insects.
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