The relationship between Japanese oakblue caterpillars and ants has long intrigued scientists, who knew the caterpillars secreted a substance the ants feed on. In return, scientists believed, the ants act as guards for the young caterpillars. But a new discovery has shown that the relationship is not as symbiotic as previously thought.

Researchers Masaru Hojo, Naomi Pierce, and Kazuki Tsuji of Kobe University in Japan conducted several experiments to test whether the relationship was indeed reciprocal.

This caterpillar secretes chemicals that brainwash ants into being its personal bodyguards. Image 1.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

They brought several specimens back to their lab. In one experiment, they let one group of ants feed off the caterpillar secretion. The ants who did not feed wandered away while those that fed remained. When the caterpillar flared its tentacles in an aggressive manner, the ants who ate the secretions responded back while those who didn't were unaffected.

After dissecting the ants, those that had consumed the secretions had lower dopamine levels, which is associated with aggression. When given a drug called reserpine, which blocks dopamine production, the ants wandered away from the caterpillars.

These experiments seem to prove that the secretions produce some kind of mind control effect on the ants and that their relationship with the caterpillars is not voluntary. The exact makeup of the chemical compound has not yet been identified.

Facts about SYMBIOSIS:

 The word symbiosis comes from two Greek words "sym" and "bios" meaning "together," and "living," and indicates a long-term codependency between species.

 Within symbiotic connections, there are several distinctive kind of relationships including mutualism, parasitism, and commensalism. Mutualism implies that both parties receive a benefit, while parasitism harms one and helps the other. Commensalism helps one party and leaves the other largely unaffected.

 Coral reefs are one of the most vibrant examples of symbiosis occurring on a large scale between thousands of species at once.

Cover image: Wikimedia Commons