Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 91–107

Changes in Chemical Signature and Host Specificity from Larval Retrieval to Full Social Integration in the Myrmecophilous Butterfly Maculinea rebeli


    • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre
  • J. C. Wardlaw
    • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre
  • A. J. Peters
    • Bermuda Biological Station for Research, Ferry Reach
  • S. Everett
    • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre
  • J. A. Thomas
    • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre
  • G. W. Elmes
    • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre

DOI: 10.1023/B:JOEC.0000013184.18176.a9

Cite this article as:
Schönrogge, K., Wardlaw, J.C., Peters, A.J. et al. J Chem Ecol (2004) 30: 91. doi:10.1023/B:JOEC.0000013184.18176.a9


The ant social parasite, Maculinea rebeli shows high levels of host specificity at a regional scale. While 68–88% of caterpillars in the field are adopted by nonhost Myrmica ants, 95–100% of the butterflies emerge from the natural host M. schencki the following year. While retrieval of preadoption caterpillars is specific to the genus Myrmica, it does not explain differential survival with different Myrmica species. We present survival data with host and nonhost Myrmica species suggesting that, with nonhosts (M. sabuleti and M. rubra), survival depends on the physiological state of the colony. We also compared the similarities of the epicuticular surface hydrocarbon signatures of caterpillars that were reared by host and nonhost Myrmica for 3 weeks with those from tending workers. Counterintuitively, the hydrocarbons of postadoption caterpillars were more similar (78%, 73%) to the ant colony profiles of the nonhost species than were caterpillars reared in colonies of M. schencki (42% similarity). However, caterpillars from M. schencki nests that were then isolated for 4 additional days showed unchanged chemical profiles, whereas the similarities of those from nonhost colonies fell to 52 and 56%, respectively. Six compounds, presumably newly synthesized, were detected on the isolated caterpillars that could not have been acquired from M. sabuleti and M. rubra (nor occurred on preadoption caterpillars), five of which were found on the natural host M. schencki. These new compounds may relate to the high rank the caterpillars attain within the hierarchy of M. schencki societies. The same compounds would identify the caterpillars as intruders in non-schencki colonies, where their synthesis appeared to be largely suppressed. The ability to synthesize or suppress additional compounds once adopted explains the pattern of mortalities found among fully integrated caterpillars in Myrmica colonies of different species and physiological states.

Host specificitychemical mimicrycuticular hydrocarbonsMaculinea butterfliesMyrmica antsmyrmecophily
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© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2004