Amazonian Butterflies Drink Turtles' Tears for Salt, Experts Say

Friday, 13 Sep 2013 04:18 PM

By Michael Mullins

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Amazonian butterflies drink the tears of river turtles, adorable new research shows.

The surprising and somewhat eerie sight is reportedly a common occurrence in the Amazon, says Phil Torres, a scientist who does much of his research at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru.

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In an interview with Live Science, Torres said butterflies congregate near the turtle's head for their tears, obtaining sodium, a vital mineral.

Whereas caterpillars, the larval form of butterflies, eat leaves and plant parts that contain sodium, adult butterflies consume various liquids like flower nectar, tree sap, and even sugary water from rotting fruit. Still, butterflies "end up needing this extra mineral source," Torres told LiveScience.

The region in which these butterflies reside is extremely low in available sodium, considering it is more than 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean — a prime source of salt for many animals.

According to researcher Richard C. Vogt, of the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, the tear-drinking phenomenon doesn't occur beyond the Amazon region.

"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," Vogt told Discovery News.

For the turtles, the release of the salt-filled tears isn't an emotional response as it is with humans, but merely an autonomic glandular reaction.

"The turtles have enough tears to feed the butterflies simply because the butterflies are taking so little," Geoff Gallice, a graduate student of entomology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News. "They simply uptake salts through a process similar to absorption by placing the proboscis on the salt-laden and passively feed.'"

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