Turtle Tears: Do Butterflies Actually Do That?

So, this picture has been doing the rounds of the internet for a while. Go on, bask in its glory again. You know you want to.

turtles-1

Mmmm, that’s some good nature

The image’s caption summarises it as “Butterfly Drinks Tears From A Turtle’s Eye”. Given that Wikimedia declared it Image Of The Year, chances are quite a few people will have seen that caption, and caught themselves wondering: do butterflies actually do that?

Turtle tears

More importantly, what kind of monster would make a turtle cry in the first place? Image here, credit Andrew Murray

To cut a long story short, we don’t know for certain that the butterfly in the picture is doing it, but yes, butterflies do enjoy the occasional sip of turtle tears. Why? The west Amazon rainforest, where the image was shot, is over a thousand miles from the sea. Far from the sea translates to far from the salt local species need to stay alive. This deficit is further worsened by the fact that very few minerals blow in as dust from the atmosphere: the Andes mountain range blocks them to the west, and the occasional scattering of dust arriving from the east is usually scoured from the air by the rains the region is famous for.

For omnivores such as the turtles themselves, this isn’t a problem; they can take in plenty of salt from the meat in their diet. Herbivores, like the butterflies, are forced to get a little more creative. Monkeys in the region are often found eating dirt, local macaws lick clay to supplement their salt intake, and the butterflies … drink turtle tears.

butterflies-turtle-tears-1

Bees also do this, but it’s less pretty so people don’t really bother taking photos of it. Image here, credit Jeff Cremer.

It’s been suggested by one of the researchers studying this phenomenon that the butterflies might also obtain other minerals by doing this, and perhaps even amino acids, which would help in forming proteins. Whatever the reason, it makes for some stunning nature photography. Click here for more adorably Disney-worthy tear-sipping.

Sources:

  1. Main, D., 2013. Must-See: Amazonian Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears, livescience.com.

(Other sources linked in text.)

Header image from here, credit amalavida.tv  

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