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Redefining Crocodile Tears: Bees and Butteflies Drink From Eyes of Caiman

May 01, 2014 04:35 PM EDT

New observations from a group of aquatic ecologists gives a whole new meaning to the term "crocodile tears." Researchers have documented insects sipping the mineral-infused tears out of the eyes of spectacled caiman in Costa Rica.

Carlos de la Rosa, director of the La Selva Biological Station Río Puerto Viejo in northeastern Costa Rica, was on a boat with a group of students and photographers when he spotted a caiman placidly basking in the sun as as butterflies and bees fluttered around its eyes taking sips of the reptile's tears.

"It was one of those natural history moments that you long to see up close," de la Rosa said in a statement.

Salt, while plentiful in ocean water, is not nearly as abundant on land. It's not uncommon for butterflies to sip mineral-enriched water out of mud puddles. Other animals have been documented getting salt and other minerals from sources such as sweat and blood. Bees have also been documented drinking from the tear glands of some turtles, leading de la Rosa to wonder how common this relationship among animals is.

"I did a Google search for images and I found out that it is quite common!" de la Rosa said in a statement. "A lot of people have recorded butterflies, and some bees, doing this."

In addition to the bee drinking from the turtle, which was documented in Ecuador in a 2012 study published in the journal ESA Frontiers, de la Rosa also said this unusual method of mineral consumption was also seen in Thailand, where where biologists detailed bees drinking the tears of humans.

De la Rosa said that his experience watching bees and butterflies drink the tears of a caiman is a testament to how much there still is to learn about the world.

It also reminded him to never forget an important piece of equipment.

"I learned I have to carry a camera with me 24/7, because you never know what you're going to find when you're walking to the office or the dining hall," he said.

De la Rosa published his observations about the relationship between bees, butterflies and spectacled caiman in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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