entomology

We Discovered & Published a New Butterfly Life History

FIGURE-5-Adult-Adelotypa-annulifera-putative-wing-pattern-mimicry.jpg

It was late 2014 when Phil Torres first showed me the photos from his recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon. Among them were amazing images of the tropical wildlife, from brilliant macaws to elusive pumas. But there were a few critters in that album that stood out to us in particular. Flipping through his camera, Phil said something to the effect of, "Check out this butterfly dude, it hangs out with ants on bamboo."

You can watch the video Phil and I put together on this discovery

After Phil showed me a few more photos, it was clear that this butterfly-ant interaction was not due to chance...something was going on here.

Multiple butterflies (both male and female) gathering on a bamboo stalk in the presence of ants.

Up-close shot of the butterflies and ants feeding from the sap secretions emitting from the bamboo shoot.

Phil and I both have backgrounds in entomology, and yet we had never seen anything like this before. I mean sure, we knew that some butterfly larvae have symbiotic relationships with ants, known as myrmecophily. This is well documented, as many of the caterpillars that associate with ants have special organs that secrete sugars and amino acids. The ants get a sugary nutritious meal from the caterpillars and, in return, the fragile caterpillars get personal ant bodyguards which defend against predators and parasites. But this is not the case for the adult butterflies, which usually have to evade ants, lest they become their next meal.

One more thing, Phil said, "Look at the three red spots on the butterfly wing. Kind of looks like the ants they're with on the bamboo. Maybe it's some sort of mimicry."

Alright, now I was really interested. The butterfly appears to be a known species, Adelotypa annulifera, but these pictures could be revealing an undocumented observation for this butterfly interacting with ants and a potentially new wing-mimicry pattern. Super cool, I thought, but there was just one problem: we know little about this butterfly beyond some dead pinned specimens. What is its life cycle? Where do the larvae develop? What do the larvae even look like? In other words, next to nothing was known about the life history of this butterfly. So to solve this mystery, Phil and I decided to collaborate. I was making a return trip to this exact field site in the coming months, so I set out to uncover the missing pieces of this puzzle.

Overlook of the Tambopata River at our field site in Southeastern Peru.

Overlook of the Tambopata River at our field site in Southeastern Peru.

The challenge with this type of fieldwork is that the Amazon rainforest is very big, and the critters we are looking for are very small. Since Phil observed the butterflies on bamboo, I ventured out to the same habitat, a trek from the Tambopata Research Center. I recall the jungle seemed particularly hot, humid, rainy, and muddy during that expedition, but I was determined to find our caterpillars and butterflies.

After hours of hiking through the Peruvian Amazon and getting continuously soaked by rain downpours, I found myself in the bamboo forest where we knew our butterflies liked to hang out. After checking dozens of bamboo plants, things seemed futile, as I wasn't finding any signs of our butterflies of interest. But persistence is the key to field work. I then saw a young bamboo shoot poking out of the mud, and noticed a leaf near the base of the bamboo, close to the ground.

Bamboo stalk with a leaf wrapped around the shoot near the base of the plant.

Bamboo stalk with a leaf wrapped around the shoot near the base of the plant.

I pulled the leaf back and to my utter shock, found myself staring directly at two caterpillars nestled against the bamboo, and an agitated ant hovering over the Lepidoptera larvae. My heart was pounding - did I really just find our caterpillars in this vast rainforest!? Clearly they were myrmecophilous, as the ant was trying to protect them.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard.

Although excited from the find, I knew the job wasn't done. This could be any species of caterpillar, so I knew I had to watch them turn into pupae and finally into adults in order to truly confirm that these belonged to the same butterfly species. I continuously checked up on the caterpillars at this spot and took numerous photos and video. After a couple of days, I found our little critters in the same location, but this time they had transformed into pupae! At this point, I gently collected them and brought them to a small insect cage at the Tambopata Research Center to see if they would emerge as butterflies. I had my fingers crossed, hopefully they would survive to adulthood.

The caterpillars later turned into pupae.

The caterpillars later turned into pupae.

Fast forward, and one day I walked past the little insect cage when I noticed some activity. Wings fluttering. One of the pupae had successfully eclosed! So the moment of truth, what butterfly was it? My jaw dropped when I noticed it was, in fact, the same butterfly (Adelotypa annulifera) that Phil had taken pictures of previously. What this means is, we had just completed the entire life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to larvae to pupae, and finally adult. We now felt that we had enough material to write this up as an official scientific publication.

Figure 1 from the publication, the immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants. (A) Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant, (B) First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant (C) Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant (D) Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants (E) Final instar larva with E. tuberculatum ant (E) Pupae.

Figure 1 from the publication, the immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants. (A) Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant, (B) First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant (C) Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant (D) Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants (E) Final instar larva with E. tuberculatum ant (E) Pupae.

Figure 2. Dorsal (left) and lateral (right) views of early instar caterpillar.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Final instar larva (left) and pupa (right).

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo. (A) Ants touching the butterfly wings with antennae. (B) Ant crawling on butterfly wing. (C) Ants touching butterfly abdomen. (D-E) Butterflies and ants utilizing extrafloral nectary resources on bamboo. (F) Butterfly drinking bamboo fluid from the ant.

Figure 4. Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo. (A) Ants touching the butterfly wings with antennae. (B) Ant crawling on butterfly wing. (C) Ants touching butterfly abdomen. (D-E) Butterflies and ants utilizing extrafloral nectary resources on bamboo. (F) Butterfly drinking bamboo fluid from the ant.

Figure 5. The butterflies and their putative wing pattern mimicry. (A) male butterfly (left) and female butterfly (right) perched on bamboo shoot in presence of red ants. Views of the wing pattern (B) ventral (C) dorsal and (D) lateral.

Overall, it was really exciting collaborating with Phil to discover and publish this life history, which is completely new for this genus of butterflies. In addition, we think the fact that butterflies steal a resource from the ants and let the ants crawl all over them indicates that some complex chemical signaling is going on. Perhaps the butterflies are utilizing a pheromone from their larval stage, potentially allowing the butterfly to take advantage of the ants, which would normally tear a fragile butterfly to shreds. The three red spots on the butterfly wing also look strikingly like the red ants (at least to us) and perhaps serve as a form of mimicry (if a butterfly looks like red ants that bite and sting, a bird may be less inclined to eat it). However, it should be noted that these are just our hypotheses at the moment and, like any hypothesis, should be rigorously tested before we can claim to back it up. We hope to do so, because there most certainly seems to be more to this incredible tropical butterfly than meets the eyes. Stay tuned...

Phil and I enjoying a boat ride along the river in the Amazon rainforest.

For more info, you can download the PDF here: Torres_Pomerantz_Adelotypa_Publication_2016

One more fun fact: it was actually during this trip that I accidentally discovered a totally new, yet unrelated, butterfly-ant relationship. The jungle is full of endless surprises -

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1a4zIjo3uU[/embed]

Mystery of the Yellow Bulbs, video and blog post http://blog.perunature.com/2015/11/mystery-of-yellow-bulbs-discovery-of.html

-Aaron

My Instagram: @NextGenScientist & Twitter: @AaronPomerantz

Phil's Instagram: @phil_torres & Twitter: @phil_torres

Entomologists and Social Media: Giving Science Communication a Facelift

The Entomological Society of America Conference (#EntSoc2014) was recently hosted in Portland, Oregon. As one can imagine, the largest gathering of arthropod-focused scientists in the United States yields hundreds of presentations, posters, meetings and symposia on the latest breakthroughs in entomological research. But this year’s conference hosted some new kinds of symposia for the first time ever, and they revolved around science communication. Two notable symposia were:

  • Reaching Beyond. This symposium demonstrated how social media have bridged the gap between entomologists and the public. Social media are powerful tools for enhancing and disseminating research, and present many opportunities for entomologists willing to look beyond their horizons. Some outstanding speakers in this session were Gwen Pearson (aka ‘Bug Gwen’), Phil Torres, Jessica Honaker and Kristina Reddick (aka the ‘Bug Chicks’), and Morgan Jackson.
  • Grand Challenge: Effective Science Education with Communication. A grand challenge on our horizon is highly effective science communication. From invasive species education to political policy making decisions, effectively communicating the importance of our research and results is essential. The symposium addressed the need for better communication and gave many examples of how to do so. In this session, I presented a poster along with co-authors Mike Bentley, Jake Bova, Geoff Gallice, and Lary Reeves. The title was “Social Media: Giving Science Communication a Facelift”.

A link to a PDF of the poster can be found at the end of this post, but here are some of the sections and highlights!

Introduction

Social media has revolutionized the interactive sharing of ideas using online communities, networks, and crowdsourcing [1,2]. For scientists, these online tools also offer a powerful platform to boost professional profiles, accelerate or create new contacts with research colleagues, increase article citations, and enhance communication between scientists and the general public. We draw upon recent research on the topic of social media and science communication, as well as some of our own experiences with Facebook, Twitter, crowdfunding and blogs to show how social media has influenced our scientific outlook, particularly in entomology and tropical conservation.

Facebook

  • Facebook is the most widely used social media site with over 1.35 billion monthly active users (http://goo.gl/kUUYcg). This site can be utilized to create a public profile or page that may reach a different audience than Twitter or blogs.
  • The Facebook page ‘Relax. I’m an Entomologist’ was created by Jake Bova as an education website dedicated to sharing insect and arthropod related news and questions (Fig 1). The page was founded in 2012 and in a relatively short period of time has grown to have over 43,000 total page ‘likes’ with an estimated total post reach to 134,220 Facebook users (https://www.facebook.com/RelaxImAnEntomologist/insights as of 11/5/14)
  • Another Facebook page ‘RACERS’ (Rainforest Adventurers, Conservationists, Educators and Research Scientists) was created in part by Lary Reeves (Fig 1). He and his colleagues share information from research and expeditions and are “racing to generate a better understanding of our planet's tropical forests”.

Twitter

  • Twitter is a microblogging platform that allows users to post short messages, called ‘tweets’ of less than 140 characters. These tweets can be shared and linked to websites or scientific papers. Currently there are 200+ million monthly active Twitter users who post 500+ million tweets per day.
  • Tweeting published findings can communicate research to a broad audience. Some analyses have shown that tweeting papers lead to increased article downloads and citations [3,4] and highly tweeted journal articles are 11 times more likely to be highly cited compared to articles lacking social media coverage [5].
  • We recently tweeted for ‘Real Scientists’, which is a rotational twitter account that features scientists, science writers, communicators, and policy makers (Fig 2). During a one week span, we ‘live-tweeted’ about a recent expedition to the Peruvian Amazon using the twitter handle @realscientists, which currently has over 14,400 followers (https://twitter.com/realscientists as of 11/5/14). We tweeted about a range of topics, including our own scientific research in the Amazon.

Crowdfunding

  • Crowdfunding is a collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money in order to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Many researchers are utilizing crowdfunding as an alternative source to subsidize project expenses [6].
  • We recently launched a crowdfunding campaign titled “Science Communicators in the Peruvian Amazon”. The project was run through RocketHub, which is an online crowdfunding website. In addition to raising funds, our goals were to interact with the online community to share the process of scientific discovery and answer questions about nature and biodiversity, all while presenting science in a more user-friendly format.
  • Through this project we successfully reached and passed our funding goal and raised a total of $6,875. This helped to supplement the costs associated with our expeditions and allows us to produce better quality videos and photos related to scientific topics that will be shared with open access online.

Blogs

  • Blog posts can be directly beneficial to scientists, as they can be easily disseminated, linked via search engine terms, and provide an ‘expert’ information source that is accessible for years to come [7]. They can also serve as a robust platform for building an online reputation.
  • For scientists, blogging removes a barrier between the authors and their audience. This transparent communication exposes the public to the scientist as a person and allows them to build trust through the individual, not just the ideas being discussed [8]. A downside to the scientist is that blog posts can require a great time investment (generating high quality posts can take several hours).
  • We have constructed several personal blogs, including ‘The Next Gen Scientist’ and ‘Tropical Wildlife’ though Wordpress and ‘Relax. I’m an Entomologist’ through Tumblr. In addition to creating easily accessible content, we find that blogging also has immediate personal benefits. We attempt to write blog posts about our research or other scientific topics regularly, and this consistent blogging helps us to refine our persuasive writing skills, broaden our base-knowledge, and formulate new ideas.

The Future of Scientists and Social Media

  • Social media outlets have changed the playing field for how scientists interact with one another and beyond academia into policy and public domains. We have presented several online social media tools that can be rewarding for scientists, but many other resources are available such as YouTube, Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit, and ResearchGate.
  • Funding bodies, such as the National Science Foundation, are increasingly looking to support projects that will have broader impacts (http://goo.gl/4RZqkB) and this criteria may be satisfied by a researcher who has an established track record and well thought out online outreach strategy.
  • While some of the current social media tools might one day become outdated in the ongoing evolution of social media services, we, and many other scientists, believe that the use of social media and interactions with online communities will continue to have long-term impact on the development and communication of scientific knowledge [1,2,4,7].

For a PDF version of the poster click the link here: ESA 2014 Poster Social Media Science Communication.

References

  1. Thaler AD, Zelnio KA, Freitag A, MacPherson R, Shiffman D, Bik H, Goldstein MC, McCain (2012) Digital environmentalism: tools and strategies for the evolving online ecosystem in Ghallagher, D., editor. SAGE Reference – Environmental Leadership: A Reference Handbook. SAGE Publications, London
  2. Wilcox C (2012) Guest editorial it’s time to e-volve: taking responsibility for science communication in a digital age. Biol Bull 222:85-87
  3. Shuai X, Pepe A, Bollen J (2012) How the scientific community reacts to newly submitted preprints: article downloads, Twitter mentions, and citations. PLoS ONE 7(11):e47523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.004752
  4. Darling ES, Shiffman D, Cote IM, Drew JA (2013) The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication. PeerJ PrePrints doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.16
  5. Eysenbach G (2011) Can tweets predict citations? Metrics of social impact based on twitter and correlation with traditional metrics of scientific impacts. J Med Internet Res 13:e123
  6. Whear RE, Wang Y, Byrnes JE, Ranganathan J (2013) Raising money for scientific research through crowdfunding. Trends Ecol Evol 28:71-72 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2012.11.001
  7. Bik HM, Goldstein MC (2013) An introduction to social media for scientists. PLoS Biol. 11(4): e1001535. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001535
  8. Wilkins JS (2008). The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. TREE 23:411-413