Category Archives: social parasite

On Insect Impersonation

Apparently humans aren’t the only creatures that imitate others for social benefits. Writing in science, Barbero et al. report that the pupae of the butterfly Maculinea rebeli may have another tool to use in their ongoing infiltration of the societies of the ant species Myrmica schencki1.

From the figure above, it is apparent that there is some similarity between the acoustic signals (bottom row) produced by these butterfly pupae (column C) and the ant queens (column A). The result is that ant workers behave around the butterfly pupae as they normally would around the ant queens.

Although it is apparent that these vocalizations are not identical, the authors report that – amongst the behaviors they took into consideration – there was no significant difference in the behaviors elicited from ant workers when comparing presentations of ant queen and butterfly pupa acoustic signals.

Of course the possibility remains that this auditory similarity is incidental and the butterflies have other tactics in their arsenal which are actually responsible for convincing these ants that the butterfly pupae are deserving of the social benefits normally reserved for ant queens. However, other forms of mimicry are common phenomena amongst insects, and it would not be surprising to find that auditory impersonation has evolved as well.

References:
1. Barbero F, Thomas JA, Bonelli S, Balletto E, Schönrogge K. Queen ants make distinctive sounds that are mimicked by a butterfly social parasite. Science 323: 782-785, 2009.