Fascinating Amazonian Butterfly Drinks Turtle Tears to Survive

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Photo Credit: Houden Bags/Twitter

A photo being passed around the internet of a butterfly gently perched upon a turtle’s eye has been fascinating viewers across the globe. Ama La Vida made Picture of the Year with the image entitled, “Butterfly Drinks Tears From A Turtle’s Eye.”

That title has asked many to question whether or not the butterfly is actually drinking the turtle’s tears. Animals in the wild have many fascinating behaviors – and, this is actually one of them.

While we can’t say for sure that this particular butterfly is actually doing that in the photo, the sight of butterflies flocking onto the heads of yellow-spotted river turtles in the western Amazon rain forest is not uncommon.

Experts believe the butterflies are attracted to the turtles’ tears because the liquid drops contain salt, specifically sodium, an important mineral that is scant in the western Amazon, according to Phil Torres, a scientist who does much of his research at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru and is associated with Rice University.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Cremer via LiveScience

Torres told LiveScience, unlike butterflies, turtles get plenty of sodium through their largely carnivorous diet. Meat contains significant levels of the salt. But herbivores sometimes struggle to get enough sodium and other minerals. They end up needing this extra mineral source.”

He goes on to explain: “This region is lower in sodium than many places on earth, because it is more than 1,000 miles 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 believes the act has little impact on the turtles. They’re also sometimes easier to photograph than unadorned animals, possibly because they’re “drowning in butterfly kisses,” which means they’re less likely to be able to spot an approaching photographer.