Home > Articles > Myrmecomorphy: Ant mimicry

Many species of ants form symbiotic relationships with a range of animal and plant species, including other ants, other insects, plants, and fungi.

Many arthropod species spend their lives within ant nests, to prey on ants and their brood as well as consuming the ant food stores. Some species live in ant nests to avoid predators and often bear a close resemblance to ants. The nature of this myrmecomorphy (ant mimicry) varies, with the main goal of the mimic being to reduce the risk of predation.

Myrmecophilous (ant-loving) caterpillars of the family Lycaenidae (e.g., blues, coppers, or hairstreaks) are herded by ants, led to feeding areas in the daytime, and brought inside the ants' nest at night. The caterpillars have a gland which secretes honeydew when the ants massage them. Some caterpillars produce vibrations and sounds that are perceived by the ants. Other caterpillars have evolved from ant-loving to ant-eating: these myrmecophagous caterpillars secrete a pheromone that makes the ants act as if the caterpillar is one of their own larvae. The caterpillar is then taken into the ants' nest where it feeds on the ant larvae.

Myrmica rubra has such a relationship with the Alcon Blue Butterfly caterpillar. The Alcon blue is a a parasite of M. rubra and feeds on the brood. The caterpillars are coated in chemicals that smell very similar to the nest scent of M. rubra. These chemicals are as good as identity badges and so similar are the caterpillars that the ants adopt them and raise them as if they were their own larvae. The more exacting the caterpillar's chemicals, the higher its chances of being adopted.

Tags: Myrmica | rubra | Morphology & Physiology | Evolution

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