Polymorphic growth rates in myrmecophilous insects

K. Schönrogge, J. C. Wardlaw, J. A. Thomas, G. W. Thomas

Abstract

A polymorphism in growth rates was recently described affecting the larval development of the myrme–cophilous butterfly Maculinea rebeli, spanning different years in a single insect population. The close integration of M. rebeli into the host ant colonies, facilitated by adaptations in behaviour and chemical mimicry, make extended larval development a successful strategy. Here we present additional data for M. rebeli and new data for Maculinea alcon (another cuckoo–feeding lycaenid) and the two myrmecophilous predators Maculinea arion and Microdon mutabilis (Diptera: Syrphidae). As predicted, M. alcon shows the same growth pattern as M. rebeli with a proportion of caterpillars developing in one year and the remainder over two years. This pattern holds in both northern and southern European populations, where M. alcon exploits different species of host. Against expectation, the same bimodal distribution of pre–pupation body weights, indicating one and two year developers, was found for the larvae of M. arion and M. mutabilis. As predators, both species are less closely integrated in their host ant colonies, suggesting that the polymorphism in growth rates is a more general adaptation to a myrmecophilous life style, arrived at by convergent evolution between the Maculinea and Microdon species. For predatory species we suggest that biennialism is an adaptation to the migratory behaviour of the host made possible by the predators' ability to fast over extended periods. We also hypothesize that M. arion represents an ancestral strategy in Maculinea butterflies and that the growth polymorphism might have become genetically fixed in the cuckoo–feeding species.