Studies show Butterflies and Bees drink Turtle Tears.
People often wonder why its important to study turtles and tortoises. The more information we gather on these incredible animals the more we learn about their important roles in our ecosystem. With gopher tortoises, we’ve learned that of 150 animals rely on the burrows they create for shelter. In the Amazon, the tears of the yellow spotted river turtles provide needed sodium to butterflies and bees.
The butterflies are likely attracted to the turtles’ tears because the liquid drops contain salt, specifically sodium, an important mineral that is scant in the western Amazon, said Phil Torres, a scientist who does much of his research at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru and is associated with Rice University.
Unlike butterflies, [these] turtles get plenty of sodium through their largely carnivorous diet. Meat contains significant levels of the salt, Torres told LiveScience. But herbivores sometimes struggle to get enough sodium and other minerals, he added. “They end up needing this extra mineral source,” he said.
This region is lower in sodium than many places on Earth, because it is more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean, a prime source of salt, and is cut off from windblown mineral particles to the west by the Andes Mountains. Dust and minerals make their way into the Amazon from the east, sometimes all the way from north Africa. But much of this material is removed from the air by rain before it reaches the western Amazon, Torres said.
Gallice said, based on his observations, that the feeding likely does little direct harm to the turtles. “The turtles have enough tears to feed the butterflies simply because the butterflies are taking so little,” he said. “They simply uptake salts through a process similar to absorption by placing the proboscis on the salt-laden and passively ‘feed.’”
Torres has also witnessed bees drinking turtle tears. Bees appear to annoy the turtles more than the butterflies, perhaps due to their buzzing wings, he said.
The butterflies also may be seeking other minerals in the turtles’ tears, and perhaps even amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, Torres said. He plans to study this in the near future to find out what’s going on.
“Potentially, they could be getting other resources out of those eyeballs that we don’t even know about,” Torres said. “Basically, we have to go start swabbing turtle eyeballs and see what we get.”
The tear-drinking phenomenon doesn’t appear to take place often outside this 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,” said Richard C. Vogt, a researcher at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil.
Juarez Pezzuti, a turtle specialist at Brazil’s Federal University of Pará, hasn’t seen it either. However, neither he nor Vogt doubt that it happened, and they said it makes sense, as some turtles eliminate excess salt through their tears.