Researchers from the Tambopata Research Center in Peru have recently observed butterflies in the Amazon swarming the heads of turtles to drink their tears. The reasons for the butterflies’ seemingly strange behavior is to attain the precious salts found in the turtles’ tears and eye balls.
Sodium is so precious in the rainforest because it is over 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, a major source of salt in the region.
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Interestingly, butterflies in the eyes doesn’t seem to be all that bad of a situation. Although it may temporarily hinder the turtles’ vision, an eye ball feeding frenzy does little to no direct harm to them. Phil Torres, one of the lead researchers of the study, explains that:
The turtles have enough tears to feed the butterflies simply because the butterflies are taking so little. They simply uptake salts through a process similar to absorption by placing the proboscis on the salt-laden and passively ‘feed.’
Torres explained that he has also seen bees attempt the same sodium harnessing technique, but that butterflies are a walk in the jungle compared to the annoyance of bees. He believes this is largely due to the annoying wing buzzing taking place, you know, on the turtles eyeball!
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Surprisingly, tear sucking isn’t that strange of an activity for butterflies, as they have also been observed obtaining sodium from
animal urine, muddy river banks, puddles, sweaty clothes and sweating people[.]
The weirdest part is that in other areas of the world where butterflies and turtles coexist in the same environment this behavior does not take place. It seems to be an anomaly of the rainforest, a phenomenon of the Amazon.
Richard C. Vogt, a researcher at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil remarks that
I have been studying turtles in the wild — from the northern U.S., Mexico and Amazonas — for over 50 years and have never seen butterflies drinking tears of turtles[.]
Simply awesome. Turtles secrete excess sodium through their tears, and the butterflies are somehow able to detect this surplus of sodium, latch on to what must seem to them a gigantic, terrifying creature, and lap up their sweet,or rather salty cry juice.
Here’s a video, the only video, from Perunature.com, of butterflies drinking turtle tears:
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Is it possible that the relationship is a symbiotic one? Could it be that the butterflies are providing a beneficial enzyme or chemical to the turtles, or that the decrease in eye sodium, however minute, is a relief to the turtles?
Maybe the simple answer is that turtles cry for the world, and butterflies only want to mop up the sadness.
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