This Species Of Butterfly Does Something Unheard Of With Red Ants

The Alcon blue butterfly spends its days fluttering around the lush meadows of Europe. It’s a beautiful species that has been studied for years by a researcher named David Nash and his team of colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

There are countless species of butterfly out there, but Nash was obsessed with this one and this one alone. Why exactly were Nash and his team so fascinated with them? Well, you’d never guess it, but it had to do with two species of ants and babysitting. Sound bizarre? That’s because it totally is.

It may be hard to imagine anyone beside a human being a babysitter, but amazingly, it occurs with butterflies! But not every type of butterfly has this particular skill. It only happens with one species native to Europe.

It’s called the Alcon blue butterfly, and you can find it fluttering around meadows throughout Europe. Of course, it mingles with its own kind, but there’s another animal it has a very fascinating relationship with.

Two different species of red ants. One is called Myrmica rubra, and the other is Myrmica ruginodis. You’re probably wondering why these two ever interact, and it all starts with a rare plant.

The marsh gentian plant is where the Alcon blue butterfly stops off to lay its eggs. There are usually several dozen larvae left after the butterfly finishes laying its offspring.

The Alcon blue butterfly is what’s known as a “brood parasite,” meaning it actually has its young raised by an entirely different creature, leaving the parents with little responsibility to care for their wee ones.

Those creatures are… you guessed it! The two species of red ants. Both the butterfly and marsh gentian plant are rare, but there are plenty of red ants that storm the flowers once the larvae are left.

This fascinating process was studied intensely by a researcher named David Nash from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and his team of dedicated colleagues. They compared this babysitting trick to a bird known for the same action.

The cuckoo does pretty much the exact same thing as the Alcon blue butterfly. Also considered “brood parasites,” cuckoos will actually lay eggs in the nests of other birds to have their young raised for them.

Once the butterfly leaves the area, large groups of red ants begin to scour the meadows in search of the larvae. There’s a specific reason the ants are so attracted to the totally different species.

The caterpillars are actually coated in a layer of chemicals that basically mimics the same scent of the red ants. This causes the ants to believe the caterpillars belong to their nest.

The ants then begin to tend to the larvae like their own offspring, completely fooled by the scent. But, it becomes an even deeper relationship than the ants simply tending to them.

They will actually carry the caterpillars back to their hives, convinced they belong there. It might not seem like that big of a problem until you realize what happens once the caterpillars arrive.

The ants almost completely abandon taking care of their own young! They put nearly all of their effort into caring for offspring that aren’t theirs. Even just a few caterpillars can lead to a nest having no surviving offspring of their own.

However, through his team’s research, David Nash believes the Myrmica rubra species of red ants will evolve over time to change their scent so the caterpillar larvae will no longer be cared for by mistake.

The species Myrmica ruginodis, though, may not develop the same evolutionary tactic. The Alcon blue butterfly will likely start to only focus on this species once the other becomes too difficult to infiltrate.

The caterpillars spend up to 23 months in an ant nest before they emerge from their pupa as a butterfly. The ants, realizing their mistake, immediately attack the winged creature. But the butterfly is more than prepared.

Covering the butterfly are protective scales that prevent the ants from inflicting any real damage. Then, they fly away having successfully duped the entire colony. This bizarre act of nature, however, is just one of many throughout the animal kingdom.

1. Chameleons’ tongues are extremely fast. They can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in a 100th of a second, so they only need 20 milliseconds to snatch their next meals. Their tongues can also be up to twice the length of their bodies.

Smarter Every Day / YouTube

2. The blue whale is the largest known mammal to ever exist. The largest recorded blue whale was 98.09 feet in length and weighed 173 tons. Their tongues alone are about 3 tons each, which is about twice the weight of a Toyota Camry.

3. Bats can range in weight anywhere from less than an ounce to several pounds. The bones in their legs and feet are so thin that even the smallest of bat’s legs are too weak to hold them up.


4. Just as humans have a dominant hand, either right or left, Elephants do, too. Well, they are either right-tusk or left-tusk dominant. You can tell which side they favor because one tusk will be more worn down than the other.

Elephant Voices

5. Hippopotamus sweat acts as a natural sunscreen. Initially, their sweat is clear and dries to a red-orange color, then to a brown color. Good thing! The sun in the sub-Saharan African terrain is extremely strong.


6.  Cows “go to the bathroom” around 15 times per day. They also produce, on average, 65 pounds of manure per day — or 12 tons in a year! No wonder farms are so fragrant.

Think Stock

7. Elephant seals spend their days hunting in the deep sea. In fact, the deepest recorded elephant seal dive was to a whopping depth of 7,835 feet. They can hold their breathes for up to two hours while deep diving, and they’ll even stop blood from circulating to certain organs in the process.

Justin Hofman / Nature’s Best Photography

8. Dolphins can stay awake for about two weeks at a time. When a dolphin does need to recharge, it has the ability to let half of its brain go to sleep and keep the other half awake. This allows them to come up for air and be alert to impending predators.

Earth, Wind, and Daisies

9. Once a mother kangaroo is pregnant, she will give birth about 30-36 days after conception. The joey is born about 2 cm long — or about the size of a lima bean. Then, they crawl into their mother’s pouch and develop further for the next 9 months.

10. Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years; meanwhile, the oldest known bee fossil was found in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar (Burma), and is about 100 million years old.

11. It’s a common misconception that camels store water in their humps and that’s how they go long periods of time without water. In reality, on average, a camel can drink about 30 gallons of water in around 13 minutes.

12. A reindeer’s eyes will change color based on the season. During the summer months, their eyes are golden, but in the winter, they change to blue. This helps them see better during the dark Arctic days.

David McDougall

13. African buffaloes hold votes to determine which direction the herd should go. This is decided based on what direction the majority of the females in the heard are facing. That’s right: only the females are allowed to vote!

Living Like Water

14. Certain species of female dragonflies will actually freeze mid-flight and go crashing down to the ground in an effort to fake their own deaths. They do this because they are trying to avoid mating with certain males.


15. Starfish have the ability to regenerate lost limbs. They are known to rip off one of their appendages if they feel like they’re in danger. The original starfish will regrow its lost appendage, and the lost appendage will actually grow an entirely new starfish.

BBC / YouTube

16. Manatees regulate their buoyancy by using flatulence. The gas they naturally hold within them makes them float near the surface of the water. When they want to dive deeper, they will pass gas, which helps them sink.

Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative

17. The Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish can make itself younger. Once the jellyfish reaches maturity, it has the ability, under certain environmental stresses or threats, to revert back to its immature state.

Takashi Murai / The New York Times Syndicate / Redux

18. Koalas have fingerprints that are similar to humans’. They are so similar, in fact, that there have been reports of crime scene investigators collecting the animals’ fingerprints at the scene!

San Diego Zoo

19. Sloths spend the majority of their lives hanging upside down in the trees, and it can take up to 30 days for a sloth to digest a single leaf. Because of these two facts, sloths will only leave the trees to defecate about once a week.


20. Finally, Mantis shrimp are extremely strong for only being several inches long. They can throw a punch with the same speed as a rifle bullet and only needs three-thousandths of a second to hit its target. Don’t mess with the mantis shrimp.

Wired, Time

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