Shedding light on butterflies

Photo: a peacock butterfly (credit: Couleur via Pixabay)

If you had walked the Earth 150 million years ago, it would have been a dull world. You wouldn’t see cheerful, yellow, red, and pink flowers in the fields, gently being blown back and forth. There would be few large trees, and the butterflies fluttering around wouldn’t be yellow, blue, and magenta, but pale brown in color, just like moths. At that time, Mother Nature had only just gotten out of nappies and it would be many years before she realizes the potential of colors.

Growing up, Mother Nature discovered the fun of colors. Like a toddler going at it with an XL pack of color markers, she tackled the world with pigment. With her tongue slightly peeping through her lips she colored flowers red, pink or even blue. She marked poisonous frogs with a fluorescent blue marker. Now, those colors speak their own language. The frog’s bright blue color says, “Don’t eat me, I’m poisonous.” The beautiful colors of flowers are a call for bees, bumblebees, flies and other pollinators to transfer pollen from one flower to another.

She wanted screaming makeup: blue eyeshadow, pink rouge, and red lipstick

Over the years, her wisdom grew and Mother Nature learned new, more advanced tricks to color the world. To her pleasure she discovered that white light could split into individual colors. She learned that reflecting one specific color would make it visible. Immediately, she applied her new discovery to butterflies and gave their wings microscopic, scale-like structures that reflect one particular color.

But the adolescent Mother Nature found a single color for all butterflies too boring. Like many youngsters, she wanted screaming makeup: blue eyeshadow, pink rouge, and red lipstick. Therefore, she varied the thickness of the scale-like structures for each butterfly species, gender and seasonal variant. The thickness created a different reflection of the light and that way she colored butterflies blue, pink and red.

A close-up of the microscopic scales on the wing of a butterfly. Will we be walking around in butterfly-like clothes in a few years? Foto credit: Pixabay

Now, Mother Nature is all grown up. Her life experience and wisdom are visible in the world around us. And we can learn a lot from her: we can copy her tricks for our own use, for example in the clothing industry. Imagine a jacket with microscopic structures, varying in thickness, making the smallest details visible. Who knows, maybe in a few years we will all be walking around in butterfly-like clothes with microscopic scales.


Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that the thickness of the microscopic scales on the buckeye butterfly determines the refraction of light, and thus the color.

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