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Butterfly tails extensions are an escape tactic from predators

By: Annie Huang

On Wednesday July 13th, 2022, after Scientists collected sail swallowtail butterflies, known scientifically as Iphiclides podalirius, near Ariege, France, they discovered that the tail on their bodies could serve as an escape tactic.

Scientists suspect that tail-like extensions on some butterfly wings may be more than just some sort of decoration. New data suggests that these break-away parts could help them survive attacks by hungry predators.

Scientists say that the eye-catching “tails” may have evolved as a decoy to keep hungry birds from grabbing a butterfly’s head or abdomen since birds are known to attack eyespots or head-shaped patterns on a butterfly wing. This may also explain why wing tails have evolved multiple times in different species of moths and butterflies.

Evolutionary biologist Ariane Chotard, studies the wings of swallowtail butterflies at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and told reporters, “A lot of these butterflies display tails. And we don’t really know why.”

Sail swallowtail butterflies are found throughout Europe and Asia and get their name from the two black tails from their wings. On the wings just above the butterfly’s tails are splotches of blue and orange.

Among the 138 swallowtails collected, around 65 of them had at last one damaged tail. They also found out that more than eight in every 10 of the wings had damaged “tails.” This suggested that the predators very much may target the eye-catching wings so the team decided to test out their idea.

They started off by capturing several dozen songbirds called great tits. Then they introduced butterfly mimics to the caged birds which were made by gluing real swallowtail wings to a cardboard body. They recorded how the birds responded and as predicted, they attacked the fake butterflies.

After their discovery, Chotard’s team published their findings in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B. Their data suggested those tails distract birds away from the prey’s most vulnerable body parts.

Juliette Rubin, an evolutionary biologist who works at the University of Florida in Gainesville told others, “Now we have evidence that butterfly tails provide a similar benefit against visual predators.”

Rubin says the next step by Chotard’s team may be studying the survival benefits of butterfly tails in real life because it would be helpful “to see how live swallowtail butterflies — both with and without tails — fare against bird predators.”


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