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Butterfly Wings & the Rise of Color

[fa icon="calendar"] Oct 11, 2017 6:13:00 PM / by Aaron Pomerantz

Aaron Pomerantz

 

Glasswing Butterfly

Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera and all members have scales covering their bodies and wings (in Latin, lepis means scale and ptera means wing). With over 180,000 described species, the Lepidoptera are not only diverse in their numbers but also in coloration. Their colors arise due to the nature of the scales they produce and can be due to pigmentation as well as structural color. Whatever the origin, color results from an interaction between light and matter.

 

Orange Wing Foldscope

 

The wings of a butterfly are covered in overlapping layers of scales which are composed of chitin. In this image you can see the orange scales through magnifying a wing 140X. 

 But not all wing colors arise due to pigments. The metallic blue morpho butterfly gets its color due to the nanoscale structures on its wings. Check out this YouTube video for more information on structural color.

 

Compilation Wing Scales All

Here's a compilation of butterfly and moth wings I've taken a closer look at using macro photography and theFoldscope at 140X magnification. See if you can figure out which are caused by pigmentation and which are caused by structural color!

 

2 red wing macro

Red wings are likely due to pigment production. Pigments typically create "hot" colors from red to yellow.

 

4 wing butterfly

Structural colors usually produce "cold" colors from near ultraviolet to blue-green.

 

uraniid wing scales

Here's a beautiful uraniid moth I spotted on the river bank in Peru. Notice the shiny green streaks in the wing pattern and then what happens when we look at the wing through the microscope with the light source now shining from behind the subject.

 

uraniid bfly wing

The green scales on the uraniid moth turn purple when we zoom in. This is likely due to the structural nature of the scales - light is coming in at a different angle and thus changes to a purplish color.

Hope you enjoyed! You can follow me for more updates on Twitter @AaronPomerantz

Topics: butterflies, Peru, color, jungle, lepidoptera, microscope, pigments, scale, structural colors, wings

Aaron Pomerantz

Written by Aaron Pomerantz

Entomologist and Rainforest Expeditions brand ambassador

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