Image of the Day: Structural Colors
Image of the Day: Structural Colors

Image of the Day: Structural Colors

The films coating buckeye butterflies’ wing scales vary in thickness, creating a broad spectrum of iridescent colors.  

Amy Schleunes
Amy Schleunes

A former intern at The Scientist, Amy studied neurobiology at Cornell University and later earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She is a Los...

View full profile.

Learn about our editorial policies.

Apr 14, 2020

ABOVE: Blue buckeye butterflies were selectively bred to produce iridescent lamina colors on the underside of their wing scales.

Butterflies have evolved numerous wing colors over millions of years due to variations in the thickness of the films coating their wing scales, according to a study published on April 7 in eLife. The researchers measured these films, or laminae, in nine species of Junonia butterflies and Precis octavia. Structural colors arise from light being scattered by highly refractive materials, such as the chitin found in scale lamina, the authors write. When buckeye butterflies (J. coenia) were artificially selected for blue wing color, their laminae were found to be 74 percent thicker than that of wildtype butterflies with brown scales. 

“It was a surprise to find that the lamina, a thin sheet that looks very simple and plain, is the most important source of structural color in so many butterfly wing scales,” says coauthor Rachel Thayer of the University of California, Berkeley, in a press release. “In each Junonia species, structural color came from the lamina. And they are producing a big range of lamina thicknesses that create a rainbow of different colors, everything from gold to magenta to blue to green.”

A helium ion micrograph of a butterfly scale shows the ridges (R), crossribs (r), and lamina (L). 
R.C. Thayer et al., eLife, 2020
Artificially selected blue buckeye butterfly wings (left) and wildtype brown buckeye butterfly wings (right)

R.C. Thayer et al., “Structural color in Junonia butterflies evolves by tuning scale lamina thickness,” eLife, doi:10.7554/eLife.52187, 2020.