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  • Ruhaani Badve

Flying Mosaics

This world is an abode of several enchanting wonders and one such spectacle is a butterfly.

Those ephemeral beings flutter in the breeze among diverse landscapes, mesmerizing us with their brilliant kaleidoscope of colours. One may wonder, how do butterfly species get their respective shades of identity? 

The wings of a butterfly are covered in overlapping layers of scales that are composed of chitin (a substance which gives strength to the exoskeleton), colours arise due to the pigmentation and structure of these scales. The pigments absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Example chlorophyll soaks up the blue and red colours of the spectrum, but not green. Most butterflies get their shades of brown and yellow from melanin, the same pigment that makes one tan in the summer. 

On the other hand, in the colour stems which are a part of their basic structure,  light passes through a transparent, multilayered surface and is reflected more than once, these multiple reflections compound one another and intensify, causing iridescence. Some butterfly displays even extend into the ultraviolet spectrum, which is visible to butterflies but not to humans. This ability to detect ultraviolet light guides monarch butterflies on their annual migration from North America to Mexico. The Lepidoptera are seen in various colours, for example the peacock butterfly's wings contain special cells called chromatophores, its pigments produce brown and black colours. Environmental factors, such as temperature and light exposure during the pupal and adult stages, also influence the final coloration of the wings. The genetic makeup of the butterfly influences the presence and distribution of pigments and structural features so different species exhibit variations in colour patterns. The Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) has yellow wings with black stripes, females may have blue or black markings. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) has black with red-orange bands, white spots on the upper side of the wings. These colourations help butterflies in camouflage, batesian mimicry to protect them from predators, mating, thermoregulation, warning signals and UV reflectivity (which is invisible to humans). In this manner these miridical beings add strokes of brilliance to the canvas of nature.

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