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How butterflies make transparent wings: scientists see what is invisible

A butterfly that feeds Costa Rican flowers. The amazing transparency of these butterflies allows them to be “invisible” and the anti-reflective coating on the wings helps prevent them from being lost by the glare of sunlight from the wings. Credit: Nipam Patel

Many animals have evolved camouflage tactics for self-defense, but some butterflies and moths have evolved it further: they develop transparent wings that are almost invisible to predators. I am.


A team led by scientists at the Marine Biological Research Institute (MBL) studied the development of one such species, the Tsumagirosukashimashi, to uncover the secrets of this natural stealth technology. Their work is Experimental Biology Journal..

The transparent structure of animals is well established, Aquatic organisms“This is an interesting biological problem, because there aren’t many transparent organisms on land,” said lead author Dr. Aaron Pomeranz. Candidate for integrated biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “So we asked the question. What is the basis of the actual development of how they create transparent wings?”

Butterfly wings are known for their colorful patterns created by small, overlapping chitinous scales that reflect or absorb light of various wavelengths to produce color. Pomeranz says that scale coloring is being studied intensively, but is investigating the origin of its development. Transparency It has never been done with butterflies on land. “Transparency is like the opposite of color,” he says.

How butterflies make transparent wings: MBL scientists see what is invisible

Hetaira species butterflyfish.Credits: Aaron Pomeranz

His co-authors, including Pomeranz and his PhD. Advisor and MBL Director Nipam Patel was inspired by the study of students in the MBL Embryology course taught by Patel. “I decided to bring some of the transparent butterflies and mo seeds I had in my collection to the course, but I haven’t seen them in detail before, and how transparent these wings are. I decided to present it as an assignment for the students to see if it is, “Patel says. “A group of students adopted it by imaging the wings with various microscopes, and they realized that they could make the wings in almost any way you could think of. .. wing Transparent, some butterflies or mo how out figured out how to do it. That’s why we’ve come to consider the development of transparency in more detail. “

Based on that study, researchers used confocal and scanning electron microscopes to construct an onset time scale of how the transparency of Gretaoto appears from the Grepupu stage to adulthood. They found that the feathers of the butterfly were less densely populated with precursor-scale cells in areas where the feathers of the butterfly developed differently from opaque species and later became transparent. In the very early stages, with scale growth and The morphology was different, with thin, bristly scales developing in the transparent areas and flat, round scales developing in the opaque areas.

“What Gretaoto does is reduce the number of scales to a very different hair-like shape,” explains Patel. “But removing scales is only part of the problem of creating transparency. Aaron also made a series of observations on the nanostructures of the wings that prevent glare in bright sunlight. When it hits a small array of these nanostructures, it doesn’t. When it reflects, it goes straight, which greatly improves transparency, “he says.

“As humans, we found a way to apply anti-reflective coatings to glass, so I think it’s great, but butterflies basically understood it tens of millions of years ago.” Says Patel.

How butterflies make transparent wings: MBL scientists see what is invisible

Glass wing butterfly on a leaf.Credits: Aaron Pomeranz

The unusual wing scales and nanostructures are only part of the story. A second layer of waxy hydrocarbon nanopillars sits on the surface of the wing to provide additional anti-reflection properties. Researchers examined the reflectance of the wings before and after removing the wax layer with hexane.

“We measured the amount of light reflected by the wings,” says Pomerantz. “These experiments have shown that the upper layer is very important in reducing its glare.” Biochemical analysis shows that the wax layer is almost like that found in other insect species. Was shown to be composed of long-chain n-alkanes. “It is thought that it mainly prevents the insects from drying out and drying out, but in this case, it seems that it is also used for anti-glare properties.”

Future research directions may include digging deeper into how these transparent structures have evolved. “If we can learn more about how nature creates new types of nanostructures, it can be very useful information for human applications,” Pomeranz points out. This work makes the secret of natural transparency quite opaque.


Glass frogs, ghost shrimp and clear wing butterflies take advantage of transparency to avoid predators.


For more information:
Aaron F. Pomerantz et al, Butterfly Transparency Development, Cellular, and Biochemical Basis, Experimental Biology Journal (2021). DOI: 10.1242 / jeb.237917

Quote: How butterflies make transparent wings: Scientists see what is invisible (June 10, 2021) https://phys.org/news/2021-06-butterflies-transparent-wings-scientists- invisible.html

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How butterflies make transparent wings: scientists see what is invisible

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