Do Maculinea rebeli caterpillars provide vestigial mutualistic benefits to ants when living as social parasites inside Myrmica ant nests?



Caterpillars of the lycaenid butterfly Maculinea rebeli Hirschke (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae) live for 11–23 months as social parasites in Myrmica (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) red ant nests, a trait that is believed to have evolved from mutualistic myrmecophilous ancestry. Although Maculinea rebeli caterpillars harm Myrmica larvae, they simultaneously produce copious secretions which the adult worker ants imbibe, perhaps representing a vestige of the ancestral mutualism. We report the results of laboratory experiments designed to test alternative hypotheses: (i) Maculinea rebeli caterpillars provide a beneficial source of sugar in return for being tended by Myrmica workers; (ii) Maculinea rebeli harms its host by stressing the workers by competing for available sugar. Comparisons were made of Myrmica worker fitness after 90–450 days under all possible combinations of three experimental treatments: ±M. rebeli caterpillars, ± sucrose and ± ant brood. Caterpillars always reduced the survival of both ant workers and their larvae, even when sugar was not provided, suggesting that M. rebeli is wholly parasitic on all stages in its host colony. The results also confirmed the importance of sucrose in the diet of Myrmica, and showed that M. rebeli caterpillars which eat ant brood to supplement their normal trophallactic feeding by workers develop more quickly - but have the same survival and pupal weights – as caterpillars that are fed solely by worker ants.