Procurement of Exogenous Ammonia by the Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio Polytes, for Protein Biosynthesis and Sperm Production

Naturwissenschaften. 2012 Sep;99(9):695-703. doi: 10.1007/s00114-012-0951-z. Epub 2012 Jul 28.


How to acquire sufficient quantity of nitrogen is a pivotal issue for herbivores, particularly for lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) of which diet quality greatly differs among their life stages. Male Lepidoptera often feed from mud puddles, dung, and carrion, a behavior known as puddling, which is thought to be supplementary feeding targeted chiefly at sodium. During copulation, males transfer a spermatophore to females that contains, besides sperm, nutrients (nuptial gifts) rich in sodium, proteins, and amino acids. However, it is still poorly understood how adults, mostly nectarivores, extract nitrogen from the environment. We examined the availability of two ubiquitous inorganic nitrogenous ions in nature, viz. ammonium (or ammonia) and nitrate ions, as nutrients in a butterfly, and show that exogenous ammonia ingested by adult males of the swallowtail, Papilio polytes, can serve as a resource for protein biosynthesis. Feeding experiments with (15)N-labeled ammonium chloride revealed that nitrogen was incorporated into eupyrene spermatozoa, seminal protein, and thoracic muscle. Ammonia uptake by males significantly increased the number of eupyrene sperms in the reproductive tract tissues. The females also had the capacity to assimilate ammonia into egg protein. Consequently, it is evident that acquired ammonia is utilized for the replenishment of proteins allocable for reproduction and somatic maintenance. The active exploitation of exogenous ammonia as a nutrient by a butterfly would foster better understanding of the foraging and reproductive strategies in insects.

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / analysis
  • Ammonia / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Butterflies / chemistry
  • Butterflies / metabolism
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Male
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / metabolism
  • Protein Biosynthesis*
  • Reproduction / physiology
  • Spermatogenesis / physiology*
  • Spermatozoa / chemistry
  • Spermatozoa / metabolism


  • Nitrogen Isotopes
  • Ammonia