OK, OK, I know I already did one sci-fi worthy parasite this week. But they published a paper about a parasite! Ed and other people already beat me to the punch, but I have to write about it! It's a parasite! I love parasites!
So anyway. Here it is.
Maculinea rebeli, the Mountain Acon Blue Butterfly, is a rather pretty creature as an adult. It's young, however, are gluttonous, lazy pigs. They don't like to feed themselves, or even move around much. They just want to sit there and have someone wait on them hand and foot. So, of course, like any master con artist, they found a nice family to do it everything for them.
That "family" is a colony of red ants. It was known for awhile that the Mountain Acon Blue's caterpillars descend to the ground and secrete chemicals which convince worker ants to scoop them up, ferry them to their nest, and feed and protect them until they're ready to cocoon and reach adulthood. The ants are so mesmerized by their mooching friend, they'll even starve their own larvae to ensure the big baby is fed and cared for. It seemed such an extreme response that Francesca Barbero from the University of Torino got to thinking maybe there was more being done by the parasite to ensure its pampering.
It turns out the caterpillar does do more to convince the ants it deserves royal treatment - it sings like a queen. The little ants use more than just chemicals to tell each other apart, and the caterpillar somehow capitalized on their communication skills. Though researchers haven't yet discovered how it makes the noises, the caterpillar manages to sound almost identical to the ant queen, and recorded playbacks of the caterpillars song makes ants act just like the queen is in the room. NewScientist has some clips of the melodies the ants and larvae make, if you're curious. So with a combination of sweet smells and crooning tunes, the caterpillar convinces the worker ants to feed and nurture it until it's ready to transform.
Which, as far as parasites go, is pretty impressive. Imagine if some animal managed to convince us it were one of us, make us treat it like our leader, and wait on it hand and foot?
Wait a second...
Francesca Barbero, Jeremy A Thomas, Simona Bonelli, Emilio Balletto, Karsten Schönrogge (2009). Queen Ants Make Distinctive Sounds That Are Mimicked by a Butterfly Social Parasite Science, 323 (5915), 782-785 DOI: 10.1126/science.1163583
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