Monday, April 03, 2006

Parasitic butterflies

Now this is cool - a journal article in Nature details the evolution of a lineage of parasitic butterflies in the genus Maculinea. If you didn't know that there were parasitic butterflies, you're probably not alone - I didn't know it before reading this paper, though there are apparently 80 species of parasitic or carnivorous lepidopterans (butterflies and moths).

Species in the Maculinea genus live across Europe and Asia, and their larvae parasitize ants:
Initially they [Maculinea caterpillars] feed on the flowers of specific Lamiaceae, Gentianaceae or Rosaceae host plants. When they reach the fourth instar, they drop to the ground and are picked up by Myrmica (or in a few cases Aphaenogaster) ants and carried into the nest where they feed as parasites. Most currently recognized species, including the widely distributed species M. arion, M. teleius and M. nausithous and the east Asian Maculinea arionides prey on ant brood [larvae]. In contrast, Maculinea alcon and Maculinea rebeli are ‘cuckoos’, whose larvae are fed primarily on regurgitations from ant workers, trophic eggs and prey items. [wikipedia links added by me]
The journal article goes on to describe the evolutionary relationships of the different species of Maculinea and a number of related genera of butterflies, including Phengaris and Glaucopsyche. Butterflies in the genus Glaucopsyche are ant mutualists that pupate in ant nests without harming the ants at any point. It appears likely that mutualist species (that pupated in ant nests) evolved first, followed by predatory species (that consumed ant larvae), while the cuckoo species (which do not consume the ants but instead trick the ants into feeding them) evolved last.

The full phylogeny of Maculinea is available online for free (as is a phylogeny of related genera); they're both great figures that illustrate the change from mutualist to predatory parasite to cuckoo-like parasite.

The abstract of the paper is available here, and the full paper is available here.

(Via Premenopaws )

Als, TD, R Vila, NP Kandul, DR Nash, S Yen, Y Hsu, AA Mignault, JJ Boomsma, and NE Pierce. 2004. The evolution of alternative parasitic life histories in large blue butterflies. Nature 432, 386-390.

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