Published on Friday, 23 May 2014 00:00
Like something out of a whimsical fairytale, deep in the western Amazon rainforest live butterflies which drink turtle tears to survive. It is indeed out of the ordinary to see a rabble of butterflies fluttering around the eyes of a river turtle, clamoring to take a sip. The flustered turtles keep retreating back into their shells or swatting with their flippers but the butterflies are determined to get their fill of turtle tears.
According to Phil Torres, a scientist at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, the butterflies are attracted to turtle tears because the drops of liquid contain sodium, a mineral that is scarce in the western Amazon region. While turtles get plenty of sodium through their carnivorous diet, the herbivore butterflies need an extra mineral source.
Torres explained that the western Amazon rainforest is over 1,000 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean – a prime source of salt. The region is also cut off from the mineral particles blown towards the west from the Andes Mountains. Most of these windblown minerals are removed from the air by the rain before they have a chance to reach the western Amazon. These factors contribute to the extremely low levels of sodium. So the butterflies have to turn to the best source available to them, and that is turtle tears, and more disgustingly - animal urine, muddy river banks, puddles, and sweaty clothes. Bet that ruined the beautiful illusion you had in your head.
Torres is uncertain whether the swarms of butterflies are hurting the yellow-spotted river turtles when they lap at their tears. But he says it most probably does not create that much of an impact on the turtles except for it just being an annoyance. At worst, their vision is obstructed, making them more venerable to predators. It is also true that turtles with larges swarms of butterflies around their heads are easier to photograph as they are not able to spot approaching photographers and slip into the water to make their escape.
Geoff Gallice, a graduate student of entomology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who has studied the phenomenon, agreed that the feeding probably does not harm the turtles directly.
“The turtles have enough tears to feed the butterflies simply because the butterflies are taking so little,” he explained. “They simply uptake salts through a process similar to absorption by placing the proboscis on the salt-laden tears and passively ‘feed.’”
However, Torres said that it is not just the butterflies, bees have also been spotted feeding on turtles' tears. The bees seem to irritate the turtles more than the butterflies probably due to their buzzing wings. The bees, Torres said, are most likely to be seeking out other minerals in the tears and perhaps even amino acids.
“Potentially, they could be getting other resources out of those eyeballs that we don’t even know about. Basically we have to go start swabbing turtle eyeballs and see what we get,” Torres added.
The phenomenon is not easy to spot – no one has ever seen it happening outside of this region.
Check out the video below to see the breathtaking phenomenon.
Photos: Jeff Cremer/PeruNature.com