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Talking Caterpillars: Interspecies Communication in a Butterfly-Ant Mutualism

A surprising number of organisms participate in "mutualistic" relationships with other species -- relationships that benefit both species. For example, many kinds of ants "tend" other insects by protecting them from attack. In turn, the other insects provide the ants with a food reward, such as a sugary secretion.

But lurking below the surface of these seemingly benign relationships is a struggle for advantage. All relationships involve both benefits and costs, and each organism tries to maximize the benefit it gets from its partner, while minimizing its own costs.
Photo of caterpillar feeding on acacia flower and attended by two ants
Two ants tending a caterpillar, which is feeding on an acacia blossom. Photo © by Greg and Mary Beth Dimijian All rights reserved.

In this module you will explore the mutualistic relationship between some unusual caterpillars and their ant protectors. Along the way, you'll encounter some truly amazing methods the caterpillars have for commmunicating with the ants.

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