Ants Have Been Raising And Milking Caterpillars Like Livestock For Millions Of Years

April 9, 2018 | Posted In: Ants

Ants Have Been Raising And Milking Caterpillars Like Livestock For Millions Of Years

Obviously, every animal needs to expend energy searching for food sources. Humans have long been considered the most successful of all animal species due to the way in which we have simplified the process of food production with agricultural advancements. While cultivating massive crops that feed a world of billions is indeed impressive, humans cannot take the credit for inventing agricultural procedures or food cultivation practices. As you may have already aware, the universally hated termites began cultivating fungal-crops millions of years before humans existed. However, we humans also raised livestock and we can herd large groups of animals. No insect can do that, right? Well, maybe, but some ant species have cared for certain insect species that produce food for them. Much like how humans milk cows, ants can milk a particular caterpillar species in order to obtain a nutritious beverage.

The larvae of many Lycaenid butterfly species are cared for by certain ant species. These Lycaenid caterpillar species are also commonly referred to as blues, coppers, or hairstreaks. Although ants and caterpillars do not technically have a symbiotic relationship, like termites and some fungal species, they still behave in mutually beneficial ways. For example, ants often consume a sugary substance that is secreted by these caterpillars, but the ants are responsible for obtaining the nutrient-rich secretion on their own. The ants collect the tasty secretions by using their antennas to prod at certain glands located on the bodies of many Lycaenid species. In return for providing ant colonies with sustenance, the ants care for the caterpillars in the same way that a farmer cares for his pigs or cows. In fact, some of these ant species have even been observed building shelters for their caterpillars.

During the dark of night, the ants will stand guard outside of the caterpillar’s shelter in order to protect them from predatory attacks. At the crack of dawn, the ants will heard the caterpillars up a tree in order to allow them to feed on leaves. These caterpillar herds are guarded around the clock by ant soldiers. This relationship confuses researchers as the ants could simply find sustenance somewhere else at no cost, yet the ants maintain their relations with the caterpillars. The caterpillars, on the other hand, do need the protection of ants in order to thrive, so maybe the ants are just being charitable.

Do you believe that the ants could be motivated to maintain a relationship with caterpillars in order to prevent their needless deaths? In other words, does the relationship between the ants and the caterpillars exist due to altruistic feelings on the part of the ants?