When the sun says hello to butterflies

Urania ripheus © Linden Gledhill
  • Urania ripheus © Linden Gledhill
  • Morpho © Jill Catley
  • Morpho bleu
When the sun says hello to butterflies

The Sun is synonymous with life on Earth. Its rays are a source of heat and energy, and they enable photosynthesis, a process that lies at the basis of the food chain. Its light is also essential to our perception of objects, their shape and their coloring. Because without light, there are no colors! And without colors, the world of butterflies would be truly sad…

An impressive palette

From sparkling blue to metallic green by way of flamboyant yellow, butterflies are really a treat for the eye. Their coloring can be pigmentary in origin, meaning it’s produced by the pigments present in each of the thousands of minuscule scales spread over their wings. But the most spectacular, dazzling colors are often the result of a very different phenomenon.

Let there be color!

In the presence of sunlight, the transparent scales have the effect of a prism. When it passes through the scales’ complex structures, the light is transformed in such a way that it reflects a particular wavelength that, when perceived by our eye, creates color. This physical phenomenon of light transformation makes possible the creation of an enormous range of tints in butterflies, and is known by the name structural coloration.

They look like sequins...

The structure of the scales on certain butterflies is so special that it creates a unique effect on the wings: iridescence. Rainbow colors on a soap bubble, the shiny eyes of cats in the dark, the hummingbird’s shimmering plumage – these are all examples of iridescence.

A surface is known as iridescent when it reflects different colors depending on the angle it is viewed from. That’s the secret of the astonishing purplish-blue coloration of the Blue Morpho. The effect created by sunlight colliding with the wings of iridescent butterflies produces a magnificent spectacle: the butterfly looks as though it’s sprinkled with real little sequins.

Beyond the scholarly principles of physics behind butterfly coloration, it’s the subtle beauty of these splendid insects that really moves us. Thanks to their thousand and one different colorings, the world of butterflies is truly far from sad...

See the shimmering colors of butterflies in sunlight from up close during Butterflies Go Free!

To learn more about the essential role of insects and arthropods
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