Butterflies taste their food through their legs, which have chemoreceptors attached to neurons that can detect the molecules that are edible and those that are not.
When you eat your food, depending on how it tastes, you can quickly decide whether you like it or not. You can thank the taste buds on your tongue for that important aspect of enjoying life (and discerning displeasure)!
Butterflies, however, don’t have taste buds like us mammals. Their mouthparts mainly serve as a straw through which they suck up their food—no chewing necessary. Without so-called “taste buds”, how do butterflies know what is nectar and what isn’t?
Butterflies do taste their food, but not through their mouthparts. Instead, they do it through their feet! Having an animal’s feet serve as taste organs sounds preposterous, which is probably why researchers never even considered the possibility.
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Most early research in the field looked at the antenna or the palpi, part of the butterfly mouthparts, as the primary taste organs. The thinking was that if humans and most other mammals had a tongue for taste, a similar organ must serve the same function in insects.
Nature rarely works in such a straight and predictable manner. It was only in the late 1800s that researchers began to take a more out-of-the-box approach to the problem. This is when they discovered that it was the legs, not the mouthparts, that functioned as taste receptors in butterflies!
New butterflies often curl and uncurl their proboscis to test it. When the proboscis is not being used, it remains curled up, like a garden hose.
Butterflies mostly eat nectar or the pollen of flowers. They perch on the flower, unfurl their proboscis and suck at the tasty juice, but that’s not the only thing they eat.
Butterflies show a peculiar affinity for mud. This behavior, called puddling or mud-puddling is mostly seen in male butterflies, mainly in tropical regions, though it also occurs in more temperate climes. Male butterflies congregate at puddles because it’s a great source of minerals that are essential for healthy sperm. These nutrients are transferred to females during mating and helps to improve the viability of her eggs.
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One particularly valuable mineral is sodium. Since plant nectar is deficient in sodium, many insects on a plant diet are frequently sodium starved. This is why many butterflies are attracted to sweat, dung or even carrion. Additionally, any water bodies near puddles might allow butterflies to cool off during hot and dry weather.
If you’re sitting in a park or garden on a sunny day, and a butterfly happens to land on you, many will take it as a compliment and a sweet little blessing, but in truth, the butterfly is probably just attracted to the salt and sweat on your skin!