Nature’s Wonders – Amazonian Butterflies Drinking Turtle Tears

Deep in the western Amazon rainforest, live butterflies that drink turtle tears. That sounds like a line straight out of a fantasy novel, but it’s one hundred percent real life! It’s an unusual sight – swarms of butterflies flocking at the eyes of yellow-spotted river turtles, trying to get a sip. The poor turtles keep ducking or swatting, but the butterflies persist until they’ve had their fill.

According to Phil Torres, a scientist at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, the butterflies are attracted to turtle tears because the drops of liquid contain sodium, a mineral that is scarce in the western Amazon region. While turtles get plenty of sodium through their carnivorous diet, the herbivore butterflies need an extra mineral source.

Torres explained that the western Amazon rainforest is over 1,000 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean – a prime source of salt. The region is also cut off from the mineral particles blown towards the west from the Andes Mountains. Most of these windblown minerals are removed from the air by the rain before they have a chance to reach the western Amazon. These factors contribute to the extremely low levels of sodium. So the butterflies have to turn to the best source available to them, and that include turtle tears, animal urine, muddy river banks, puddles, and sweaty clothes.

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Photo: Jeff Cremer/PeruNature.com

Watching a video of butterflies feeding on a turtle’s tears, I can’t help wondering if the process is painful for the latter. Torres tells us that it’s not clear yet, whether the turtles are getting hurt or not. But he says it’s most probably not having much of an impact on the large amphibians. At worst, their vision is obstructed, making them more vulnerable to predators. It is true that turtles temporarily blinded by butterflies are easier to photograph, because they aren’t able to spot approaching photographers.

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Photo: Jeff Cremer/PeruNature.com

Geoff Gallice, a graduate student of entomology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who has studied the phenomenon, agreed that the feeding probably doesn’t harm the turtles directly. “The turtles have enough tears to feed the butterflies simply because the butterflies are taking so little,” he explained. “They simply uptake salts through a process similar to absorption by placing the proboscis on the salt-laden tears and passively ‘feed.’”

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Photo: Jeff Cremer/PeruNature.com

Torres added that it’s not only butterflies, even bees have been spotted feeding on tears. The bees appear to annoy the turtles even more, probably because of their buzzing wings.” He said that these insects might be seeking other minerals in the tears, and perhaps even amino acids. “Potentially, they could be getting other resources out of those eyeballs that we don’t even know about. Basically we have to go start swabbing turtle eyeballs and see what we get.”

The photographs of these pretty yellow-and-orange butterflies fluttering around large turtles are truly breathtaking, but you’ve got to watch the video to really believe what’s happening. The phenomenon is not easy to spot – no one has ever seen it happening outside of this region. So I suppose we’re incredibly lucky to be able to see it on video. Nature just never ceases to amaze!

Source: Livescience


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