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Ants and Lycaenid Caterpillars

The larvae (caterpillars) of lycaenids that participate in a mutualism with ants have evolved several ways to communicate with the ants:

  • many of these caterpillars can produce sound (stridulations, squeaks, grunts) that also help them communicate with ants. These sounds are not always audible to human ears, but are transmitted to the ant through the plant the caterpillar and ant are both on.
  • the pore cupolas--glands scattered over the surface of the caterpillar--are thought to alert the ants to the fact that the caterpillar is not a prey item (perhaps through chemical "appeasement" signals).
  • the dorsal nectary organ (DNO) is a specialized gland that secretes a nectar-like substance.
  • the tentacular organs (TOs), two eversible structures, also seem to function in ant-caterpillar communications.

Image: line drawing diagrams of caterpillars, showing the location of the dorsal nectary gland (on the 7th abdominal segment) and the tentacular organs (on the 8th abdominal segment). Includes a close-up view of an extruded tentacular organ.

Image: drawing of ant drinking nectar from the nectary gland of a caterpillar
Above: ant drinking from the nectary organ of a lycaenid larva.

Next: What it looks like when the lycaenid extrudes the TOs.

Drawing of enlarged tentacular organ based, with permission, on the SEM photographs of Roger Kitching, as published in the book The Ants, by Holldobler and Wilson (pub info).


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