Recently, I was listening to a trivia podcast that talked about the relationship between ants and the Oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica) caterpillar.
The long and the short of it: ecology is complex.
For a long time, scientists thought that the caterpillar had a mutualistic relationship with Pristomyex punctatus ants. The caterpillar has a dorsal nectary organ that produces sugary droplets, and the ants, it seemed, would gather around the caterpillar to collect these rewards, and in turn, would protect the caterpillar from predators.
But the reality is more sinister.
As it turns out, the sugary secretion is a behavior modifying drug that suppresses dopamine. Ants who eat the secretion become less active overall, but show aggressive tendencies when their caterpillar appears alarmed.
Ants who don’t eat the secretions don’t show any fealty to the caterpillar – and thus offer it no protection from predators.
This is far from the only case of scientists gaining a deeper understanding of ecology through additional observations and study (see also, the far from mutualistic relationship between certain large African mammals and the oxpecker). But it does demonstrate why it’s important to consider a variety of ecological factors when working in a landscape, especially when the aim of a project is to design or protect habitat for a particular species.