Larvae of Maculinea rebeli, a large-blue butterfly, and their Myrmica host ants: wild adoption and behaviour in ant-nests



The behavioural interactions between caterpillars of Maculinea rebeli Hir. and their Myrmica ant hosts were studied, both in the wild at the time of adoption, and inside captive nests of six Myrmica species.

In the wild, freshly moulted, final instar caterpillars left their food-plants at a time of day that coincided with the peak foraging activity of Myrmica (18:00-20:00 h). Once on the ground, caterpillars made no attempt to search for Myrmica but settled and waited for foraging ants to find them, which took up to 1.5 h. There was no adoption ritual: foragers of any Myrmica species picked up the caterpillars within 1–4 sec of discovery, and carried them directly to their nests.

Caterpillars grew from < 2 mg to 110 mg in laboratory ant-nests. About 60 mg was gained in autumn but 40% of this was lost during the winter, while the temperature was < 14 °C. Although caterpillars survived best with their normal host, Myrmica schencki, they could also survive in the nests of other Myrmica species. The presence of queen ants had no effect upon survival. The behaviour of the caterpillars was described and illustrated: this included the production of secretions that were drunk by the ants, begging for food and direct feeding by ants. The preferred solid food was ant eggs.

The results are discussed in terms of the social biology of Myrmica ants. It is hypothesized that Maculinea rebeli caterpillars mimic the touch pheromones of ant worker-larvae. This would explain the inability of ants to recognize caterpillars before touching them, their immediate adoption by any Myrmica species after discovery, host specificity inside wild ant-nests, the absence of queen-effect and the intimate attention of host workers.