, Volume 91, Issue 5, pp 209-214

A butterfly’s chemical key to various ant forts: intersection-odour or aggregate-odour multi-host mimicry?

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Deception is a crucial yet incompletely understood strategy of social parasites. In central Europe, the Mountain Alcon Blue, Maculinea rebeli, a highly endangered butterfly, parasitises several Myrmica ant species. Caterpillars gain access to host nests probably by faking the ants’ odour. We analysed gas chromatography–mass spectrometry data of body surface hydrocarbons of pre-adoption and hibernated larvae of Maculinea rebeli and of their host species Myrmica sabuleti and M. schencki. Data were ordinated by different methods, based on similarities in the relative quantities of compounds between chromatograms. The two Myrmica species exhibit species-specific profiles. The Maculinea rebeli pre-adoption larva has a complex profile that simultaneously contains species-specific substances of the two investigated host species. This evidence leads to the interpretation that, in central Europe, Maculinea rebeli is predisposed for multi-host use by the chemical signature of its pre-adoption larva. The Maculinea rebeli larva clearly does not rely on an “intersection-odour” of compounds common to all host ant species, but synthesises an “aggregate-odour” containing specific compounds of each of the investigated hosts. We term this previously unknown chemical strategy “aggregate-odour multi-host mimicry”.

B.C. Schlick-Steiner and F.M. Steiner contributed equally to this work.