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Blue wings, smelly ant

Words by: Will Sacre
Location: Bidjara Country, Queensland
Published 11 Jan 2024

How far would you go to track down an ant and a butterfly? Whatever your answer, it's probably very different from the Australian National University’s Associate Professor Michael Braby and Honours student Ethan Beaver.

The team of two from Canberra traversed over 20,000km, contending with flooding rain and treacherous roads, in search of these curious species in some of the wildest of places, including Carnarvon Station Reserve, Bidjara Country in central Queensland.

The eager entomologists were on the hunt for an ant– the Anonychomyrma inclinata – that would lead them to members of the Ogyris aenone species group; a rare kaleidoscope of butterflies. These butterflies have a parasitic relationship with the ants. Find the ant and you might just find some of Australia’s most mysterious winged insects. 

“We had to wait for five days to get into Carnarvon,” says Dr Braby. “The road is notoriously difficult in the wet, so we killed time and waited for Bush Heritage to give us the all-clear.”

When the call came, they sprang into action and spent six days searching through the 59,000-hectare reserve. 

They were looking for the specific occurrence of old-growth trees and mistletoe plants, a combination that the ants rely on and one that has mostly been cleared. “Knowing what you’re looking for is key,” says Dr Braby.

“Thankfully, the ant is conspicuous. It's three to four millimetres long, with a very pungent odour. They need extremely old trees, living inside hollows and branches. That’s why they're so rare.” 

On their final day, they found the butterfly. Previously, only a few ant records suggested that it might also occur at Carnarvon. On reserve, the team was able to witness, record and describe a new species, the Ogyris caelestia, within the species-group.

A female <em>Ogyris caelestia</em>, Keinjan Country, QLD. By Michael Braby

“They’re a spectacular species. Large butterflies, 40–45mm from wing tip to wing tip, with an iridescent blue color. Their sheer beauty and size are rare. And what’s more, they have evolved over millions of years to crack the ant communication code, mimicking the ants’ complex chemical signals to trick them into thinking they're of their own kind. When the butterflies are caterpillars, the ants protect them from predators like wasps and flies. In return, they reward the ants with a sugar solution. It’s a sophisticated relationship, but the butterflies get more out of it than the ants.”

Dr Stephen Kearney, Bush Heritage’s central Queensland Ecologist, understands the complexity of these interactions between plant and animal life, and the value in safeguarding these relationships. 

“This story presents the broader picture of why conserving intact landscapes is so important,” says Dr Kearney.

“It was Aldo Leopold who said, ‘To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.’ In other words, if one species in that chain of interactions is lost, all the other ones are going to be negatively impacted, potentially catastrophically. Carnarvon is one of nature’s strongholds in the Brigalow Belt of central Queensland and is home to vast grasslands, fertile valleys, ancient forests and ecosystems that are irreplaceable. It's found in a bioregion where the greatest extent of land clearing occurs each year across the State. Now and in the future, the reserve acts as a vital refuge for the region’s native species."

The colourful and rare discovery illuminates nature’s fragile interconnectedness and the urgent need to continue protecting these precious webs of life – for the Ogyris caelestia, the ant, the mistletoe, the old-growth forest and all the other species that rely on them.

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