The capacity of a Myrmica ant nest to support a predacious species of Maculinea butterfly
- Cite this article as:
- Thomas, J.A. & Wardlaw, J.C. Oecologia (1992) 91: 101. doi:10.1007/BF00317247
Caterpillars of Maculinea arion are obligate predators of the brood of Myrmica sabuleti ants. In the aboratory, caterpillars eat the largest available ant larvae, although eggs, small larvae and prepupae are also palatable. This is an efficient way to predate. It ensures that newly-adopted caterpillars consume the final part of the first cohort of ant brood in a nest, before this pupates in early autumn and becomes unavailable as prey. At the same time, the fixed number of larvae in the second cohort is left to grow larger before being killed in late autumn and spring. Caterpillars also improve their feeding efficiency by hibernating for longer than ants in spring, losing just 6% of their weight while the biomass of ant larvae increases by 27%. Final instar caterpillars acquire more than 99% of their ultimate biomass in Myrmica nests, growing from 1.3 mg to an estimated 173 mg. A close correlation was found between the weights of caterpillars throughout autumn and the number of large ant larvae they had eaten. This was used to calculate the number of larvae eaten in spring, allowing both for the loss of caterpillar weight during winter and the increase in the size of their prey in spring. It is estimated that 230 of the largest available larvae, and a minimum nest size of 354 M. sabuleti workers, is needed to support one butterfly. Few wild M. sabuleti nests are this large: on one site, it was estimated that 85% of nests were too small to produce a butterfly, and only 5% could support two or more. This prediction was confirmed by the mortalities of 376 caterpillars in 151 wild M. sabuleti nests there. Mortalities were particularly high in nests that adopted more than two caterpillars, apparently due to scramble competition and starvation in autumn. Survival was higher than predicted in wild nests that adopted one caterpillar. These caterpillars seldom exhaust their food before spring, when there is intense competition among Myrmica for nest sites. Ants often desert their nests in the absence of brood, leaving the caterpillar behind. Vacant nests are frequently repopulated by a neighbouring colony, carrying in a fresh supply of brood. Maculinea arion caterpillars have an exceptional ability to withstand starvation, and sometimes survive to parasitize more than one Myrmica colony. Despite these adaptations, predation is an inefficient way to exploit the resources of a Myrmica nest. By contrast, Maculinea rebeli feeds mainly at a lower trophic level, on the regurgitations of worker ants. Published data show that Myrmica nests can support 6 times more caterpillars of Maculinea rebeli than of M. arion in the laboratory. This is confirmed by field data.