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Caterpillar treats and tricks ants by oozing spiked juice

Sipping droplets changes ants’ brain chemistry, making them neglect the colony and defend the butterfly larva

By
12:07pm, July 30, 2015
Ants with caterpillar

BUILDING BODYGUARDS  Neglecting their colony tasks, ants hang around — and defend — a Narathura japonica caterpillar that oozes droplets spiked with substances that alter ant brain chemistry.

Beware the caterpillar offering a juicy treat. Sips tweak ant brain chemistry, lulling the insects into neglecting their own colony in favor of hanging around the source of the marvelous droplets.

Effects on the brain help Narathura japonica caterpillars recruit a corps of ant bodyguards, says chemical ecologist Masaru K. Hojo of Kobe University in Japan. In lab tests, ants sipping these secretions scurried around less on their own initiative than normal ants do. Yet the low-key ants burst into frenzies of defensive aggression when the caterpillar showed alarm. Analyses of ant brains suggest that the caterpillar droplets change the concentrations of the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain. And that change may turn passersby into protectors, Hojo and his colleagues suggest in the Aug. 31 Current Biology.

What might look at first like a simple exchange of drinks for

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