Scientists Say: Lachryphagy

This is when one animal drinks the tears of another

a caiman with butterflies waiting to sip its tears

These butterflies aren’t just giving this caiman pretty decoration. The ones on its eyes are sipping on the reptile’s tears.

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Lachryphagy (verb, “Lah-CRIH-fih-gee”)

This is a thirst for another animal’s tears. Scientists have observed insects — especially butterflies, bees and flies — crawling into the eyes of animals. There, the insect will sip on the animal’s tears. This might sound creepy, but tears have ingredients insects can use. In particular, tears are high in both water and proteins.

Insects that drink tears don’t wait around for an animal to break out sobbing. If they did, they would never get a drink. Only humans cry when they are upset. But many animals do make tears. Those tears are mixtures of water, mucus, salt, proteins and fats. Glands near animals’ eyes — called lacrimal glands — constantly make tears. This helps to keep the eyes moist, washing away dust and anything dangerous.

The word lachryphagy combines two words — one Latin, and one Greek. The Latin word lacrima means tear, which is why tear ducts are called lacrimal ducts. The Greek word phagos means one that eats. So lachryphagy translates as tear eating. 

In a sentence

Butterflies can sometimes be seen sitting on a crocodile-like caiman’s eyes, engaging in lachryphagy.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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