If it quacks like a queen...

As if butterflies weren't flamboyant enough already, it seems that some of them actively impersonate queens.

Queen ants, that is.  A report by Francesca Barbero et al in today's issue of Science documents a clever strategy employed by a European butterfly, the Mountain Alcon Blue  Maculinea rebeli, to infiltrate nests of Myrmica schencki.  The immature stages of the butterfly are parasites of ant colonies, and it seems the secret to their success is acoustic mimicry.  The larvae and pupae squeak like queens, eliciting preferential treatment from the workers. Here's the abstract:

Ants dominate terrestrial ecosystems through living in complexsocieties whose organization is maintained via sophisticatedcommunication systems. The role of acoustics in informationexchange may be underestimated. We show that Myrmica schenckiqueens generate distinctive sounds that elicit increased benevolentresponses from workers, reinforcing their supreme social status.Although fiercely defended by workers, ant societies are infiltratedby specialist insects that exploit their resources. Sounds producedby pupae and larvae of the parasitic butterfly Maculinea rebelimimic those of queen ants more closely than those of workers,enabling them to achieve high status within ant societies. Weconclude that acoustical mimicry provides another route forinfiltration for ~10,000 species of social parasites that cheatant societies.

Sounds of the ants and the butterfly are posted at Science News.   See also commetary by Discover and Not Exactly Rocket Science.

source:  Barbero, F. and J.A. Thomas, S. Bonelli, E. Balletto, K. Schönrogge. 2009. Queen ants make distinctive sounds that are mimicked by a butterfly social parasite. Science 323(Feburary 6): 782-785.

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Since, I think at least some, Myrmice still mate on the ground I sure hope these caterpillars don't take this mimicking thing to far.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink

Here is a short, written version of the story to be found in the Life in the Undergrowth clip I linked above. You might chase it further from here:


Yes, Bug Girl, it gets more wonderful. Yes, Huckleberry Days, so many intricacies...

I think this little vignette of co-evolutionary entanglement is better than the richest plot in a who-dunnit.

By Enbrightenment (not verified) on 08 Feb 2009 #permalink