October 2011

Green Tree Ants Get Grubby

I discovered Green Tree Ants milking grubs! I put one of the pupae into a jar and it hatched into a butterfly. The adult butterfly was listed in reference books as a "tit". I was wondering how this butterfly got the name.

Answer

Ants guard the caterpillar An ant receives its honeydew reward for being an attentive guard The developing pupa The butterfly’s slender tails distract predators away from the headThanks for sharing your amazing photos. Your butterfly is indeed a male Common Tit (Hypolycaena phorbas). This name is an ancient and endearing
reference to something small. Other animal names of the same origin include small birds called “tits” and “titmice”.

This butterfly is one of the lycaenids (groups known as blues, coppers). These frequently have associations with ants.  Lycaenid caterpillars secrete fluid from special glands, and this fluid is rich in sugars and amino acids.  In return for this nutritious food, the ants provide protection from parasites and predators. Ants are dominant insects that have a powerful influence on what other insects may live around them, so they make powerful allies. Your butterfly is one of several lycaenids that have evolved relationships with Green Tree Ants (Oecophylla smaragdina).

The slender antenna-like tails and eyespots on the hindwings are a common feature of lycaenid butterflies. Predators seeking to bite the head are liable to snap the wrong end. To accentuate this deception, the butterfly shuffles its hindwings, and waggling these tails, distracts predators away from its real head.

References:

The Butterflies of Australia. Albert Orr & Roger Kitching, Jacana Books. 2010

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