Myrmecophily in Hesperiidae. The case of Vettius tertianus in ant gardens.
The larvae of the hesperiid butterfly Vettius tertianus develop by eating the leaves of Aechmea mertensii, a bromeliad epiphyte restricted to ant gardens. The relationships between ants and V. tertianus larvae highlight the preferential association of the caterpillars with Pachycondyla goeldii (Ponerinae), an ant-garden initiator. The oviposition strategy of V. tertianus may thus imply the identification of the inhabiting ant species and not only the identification of the host plant. The caterpillars neither provide secretions to the ants, nor possess defensive devices (i.e. hairs or appendices) against ants. Their activity rhythm does not isolate them from foraging workers of P. goeldii and their shelters are also attainable by the ants. Moreover, as the cuticular lipid profiles of V. tertianus larvae are clearly different from those of the ants and also from the leaf-surface of A. mertensii, acceptance is not due to mimicry between larvae and plants or ants. However, the caterpillars deposit, on the leaf they eat, silk containing a mixture of substances very similar to those found on their own cuticle. No interaction with ants was recorded during observations, even though the ant gardens were patrolled by numerous P. goeldii individuals during their activity period. But when confronted with the caterpillar, none of the tested ant species reacted aggressively. These results suggest the existence of compounds, other than cuticular lipids, responsible for the absence of aggressiveness in the ants. The case of V. tertianus is relatively new as myrmecophily within Hesperiidae has been described only once. Moreover, it preferentially involves a member of the Ponerinae, a subfamily in which interactions with other arthropods are exceptional.