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60-Second Science

Caterpillar Does Great Ant Impression

In a study in the journal Science, researchers report that blue butterfly caterpillars infiltrate red ant colonies and grub food by mimicking the raspy sound of the ant queen. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It’s good to be the Queen. You get fed and cared for and generally treated like royalty. But if you’re a blue butterfly caterpillar, you can get the same benefits by just pretending to be queen. Because these crafty caterpillars trick ants into feeding them—by mimicking the sound of their queen.

Ants are social creatures whose colonies contain a queen ant, and hordes of worker ants who feed the queen and take care of all her young. Blue butterfly caterpillars have come up with clever ways to exploit that system. These parasitic caterpillars take up residence in the nests of red ants. And they mooch free meals in part by waggling their heads to beg for food like all the other ant grubs.

But that’s not all. Scientists using sophisticated recording equipment were able to listen to the caterpillars chatter. And found that the interlopers imitated the sounds of an adult queen. The report’s in the February 6th issue of the journal Science.

The reason it’s better to be mistaken for royalty and not just some other grub is that in times of stress, ants will even feed their young to the queen. So if it’s eat or be eaten, caterpillars are clearly making the sound choice.

—Karen Hopkin 

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