|Photo: Sanja Baljkas
We humans see butterfly colors on wings as mosaics. These beautiful colors are made up of butterfly scales, also called setae, or hair. Each individual scale is made up of one color and the inlay of each creates a larger, surface decoration to us. Colors on the wings of butterflies can be beautiful or plain to us depending on the design on butterfly wings.
Butterflies see colors and patterns differently with their sensitive compound eyes. They see ultraviolet patterns (human's can't see) and can navigate using polarized light (light waves move one direction). Because of this, the colors humans see will translate differently to the butterfly.
|Photo: Deborah Hewitt
Colors on the wings of butterflies are produced by a combination of pigmented colors and structural colors. Both pigmented and structural colors display hues depending on light reflection and absorption.
The major classes of chemical pigments associated with the wing colors are melanins, flavones, corontenoids, ommochromes and pterins.
The pigmented butterfly scales display a particular color because they each absorb all wavelengths of light, except for those humans see. The pigments selectively absorb wavelengths of ultraviolet and visible light.
|Photo: Xunbin Pan
Carotenoids, ommochromes and pterins have more complex wavelength-dependent absorption profiles found in structural colors. Other colors such as ivory to dark yellows are produced by these.
Other brilliant colors such as greens, blues and whites that show iridescence are not pigments. The vivid structural color is a result of selective light reflection.
The physical process is called scattering. Scattering is where light and particles move in a manner not detected by the human eye.
This is found within the structural grid of the butterfly's anatomy.
|Photo: Filip Fuxa
As angles of the wings change from our viewing perspective, the butterfly colors change because light will pass through a transparent, multi-layered scale, reflecting it more than once. This results in multiple angles of iridescence. Another term for this is fenestration. Fenestration defined means an opening. For butterfly scales this is cellular structure within that changes wavelengths of light, including air-bubbles, which results in the shimmering wing colors. In short, scales disrupt light frequency.
Scientists were curious about the morphogens and the development of eye spots in the Nymphalidae Family. Learn more about this on the
Brushfooted Butterflies page.
Power & Syred state of this video: "Light microscopy of Morpho aega butterfly wingscales demonstrating a metallic iridescent colour through interference of light rather than by the presence of a blue pigment."
Translation: Morpho butterfly is actually brown.
Monika Landy-Gyebnar on video:
"Butterfly scales were put under a digital microscope with halogen lamp's transmitted backlight and showed altering colours with the altering angle of the backlight... The same happens in transmitted sunlight."
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