The Kabini Protection Racket!
We’ve all grown up on stories of the Mafia and how most businessmen need to shell out ‘Protection Money’ to carry on with their lives and businesses. In a Kabini, teeming with predatory gangs, there is one set of precocious toddlers who begin this practise early. The Red Pierrot of Kabini is a case in point of how to get your natural enemies to become fierce guardians. The caterpillar of this fascinating butterfly has a strangely symbiotic covenant with Ants. Ants eat caterpillars. Period! But these caterpillars are unusual in that they secrete honeydew, which is like manna from heaven for the ants, who, in order to harvest this liquid gold, create a protective circle around them to keep away parasitoids and other predators. In fact, what’s even more astonishing is that these ants milk their ‘caterpillar-cattle’ by gently stroking their glands with their antennae and jaws. This is one of the most astonishing cases of coevolution in nature, but comes with a ‘use-by’ date. The moment the caterpillar morphs into a butterfly, the protectors vanish and the insect is left to its own devices. So who does it now depend on for protection? Who else but its own ‘phantom-twin’. The adult butterfly has thread-like tails on its hind wings, complemented by lobes decorated with black and golden spots amidst splashes of bright orange. This resembles the head and antennae of the butterfly; predators get confused and instinctively bite at it, allowing the real butterfly to shake off its wing and scoot, leaving the phantom limb in the mouth of the befuddled aggressor. These unique self-defence mechanisms show how a small butterfly can change the rules of the game by creating an illusion of itself on the one hand, and, on the other, by getting its enemies to guard it by paying ‘Protection Money’…or should we say ‘Protection Honey’?
We at Orange County have loved sharing this story with you, and shall bring you one every fortnight, as part of our Responsible Tourism Initiatives to raise awareness about the nature and culture of the environments we operate in.