SYDNEY, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- Australian scientists have observed a breed of butterfly feeding on its own offspring, throwing into question long held beliefs about insect evolutionary theory.
Lead author of the study and doctoral candidate Yi-Kai Tea from the University of Sydney's School of Life and Environmental Sciences said this was the first time such cannibalistic behavior had been reported in insects.
The study, published in the Scientific Naturalist journal on Wednesday, revealed how milkweed butterflies -- members of the Danainae subfamily of butterflies -- undermined traditional ideas of how insects care for their young ones.
"The behaviour does not fit neatly in the traditional modes of predation, parasitism, or mutualism, and so presents a new challenge to evolutionary theory," Tea said. "We have coined it 'kleptopharmacophagy' -- chemical theft for consumption."
Tea said this "kleptopharmacophagy", observed in butterflies in the forests of North Sulawesi, Indonesia, saw male butterflies extracting toxins from caterpillars, including of their own species, to produce chemicals that could help them attract a mate.
He said it was "very unusual" that a species would harm its own offspring and seemingly reduce its chances of passing on its genetic code.
"Here it seems counterintuitive, that in the search for toxins, the species are targeting caterpillars not only of other Danainae butterflies, but also their own species," he told Xinhua on Thursday.
He said that ultimately it was a display of an animal trading off the survival of their offspring for their own survival.
"People have the misconception that butterflies are dainty species found in meadows and flower fields. Truth is they're very metal and do all sorts of wild unfathomable things," said Tea.
When asked how he felt when he first made the discovery, Tea said he didn't realize he had made one until sometime later.
"We actually were not paying attention to this in the wild. We were simply there on an unplanned vacation, taking photos and videos of wildlife, including butterflies," he said.
"It was only weeks later when we were at home looking through our videos and photos that we realized we captured these insects doing something strange," said Tea.
Tea said he and his fellow vacationing researchers were surprised and thought it may have just been a one-off incident. But after comparing their findings to photos and videos by other amateur naturalists they realized it was something worth delving deeper into.
"Nonetheless, these simple observations raise questions about the ecology of these well-known butterflies, providing numerous opportunities for future studies," said Tea. Enditem