An odd never-before-seen food triangle between a yellow parasitic plant, a caterpillar, and an ant lurking in the rainforest was recently discovered in the Peruvian Amazon.
Aaron Pomerantz, an entomologist and molecular biologist who works with a rainforest expedition company at the Refugio Amazonas located near the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, said that the strange relationship was something truly fascinating.
Pomerantz spotted the yellow parasitic plant on a tree trunk, as he was walking through the jungle. When he went to take a closer look at it, he saw that a caterpillar was feeding on the yellow bulbs.
However, it did not end there. An ant appeared to be making a drumming motion on the caterpillar’s back. That particular motion caused the dorsal nectar organ of the caterpillar to produce a sugary liquid, which the ant feasted on. (note: the dorsal nectar organ is an exocrine gland found in many lycaenid species, that secretes a liquid made of free amino acids and carbohydrates)
According to Pomerantz, the caterpillar provided food for the ant, and in return, the ant defended its ‘friend’ from other ants, spiders, or wasps. This type of relationship is known as myrmecophily (literally “ant-love”).
The finding is really impressive given its multiple layers: the tree, the yellow bulbs that burst from the tree bark, the caterpillars eating the parasitic plant, and the ants looking out for the caterpillars.
While many botanists emailed by Pomerantz were baffled by the discovery, some of them managed to identify the odd-looking bulbs. They are a parasitic plant – which only bursts from the tree once a year to flower and be pollinated – in the family Apodanthaceae. The caterpillars were identified as larvae of the butterfly from the family Lycaenidae, according to the botanists.
When Pomerantz went back to the Peruvian Amazon he noticed a grey butterfly with a yellow dot on its wing. The butterfly was laying eggs on the tree, he said. Its colouring helped it perfectly blend in with the yellow-blubs and the tree.
Pomerantz suspects that the butterfly uses this camouflage to hide from birds and lizards. Even in its adult stage, this particular butterfly species still relies on the parasitic plant and the tree. That is clearly the definition of a log term relationship, Pomerantz added. It is especially fascinating since the parasitic plant only emerges from the tree for a few weeks once a year.
Image Source: thenextgenscientist