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Passion flowers and heliconid butterflies

Plants have evolved several ways to protect themselves from herbivorous animals. Some use thorns or poisonous chemicals, but the passion flower has an especially clever trick to keep certain insects away. There are butterflies whose caterpillars eat exclusively passion flower leaves, the Heliconids or longwings. They can be easily recognized by their rounded wings and slender bodies.

After mating, the female longwing searches for a suitable place to lay her eggs. In a dense rain forest with hundreds of plant species, she has to find a passion flower liana. If she chooses another plant, the caterpillars will starve. Once she finds the right liana, she attaches the eggs individually to young shoots. If a leaf has already been claimed by another Heliconid, she keeps looking. Some species of passion flowers have found a cunning defense: their leaves have developed tiny spots or growths that look just like longwing butterfly eggs! Plants with these dummy eggs suffer much less than others from hungry Heliconid caterpillars.



Audio file download
Passion flowers and heliconid butterflies (MP3, 521 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Andreas Gröger, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg