SCV Outdoor Report: Iridescent Boomerang Butterfly Wings
By Wendy Langhans
What does “The Boomerang” principle” and the “Different Strokes” principle have in common? We’ve all heard of these principles; we may have even quoted them ourselves. The Boomerang principle can be found in the saying, “What goes around, comes around” and the Different Strokes principle is found in, “It all depends upon your point of view”. The first principle has to do with “getting even”, while the second promotes diversity and tolerance. So what could they possibly have in common?
Iridescent boomerang butterfly wings!
Butterfly from Malaysia displaying iridescent green colors. (Photo courtesy of Paul Levine)
I know it’s a stretch, but please allow me a moment to explain. When you observe common objects like sea shells, soap bubbles and butterfly wings, their colors change when seen from different angles, a different point of view. This color property is known as iridescence.
Japanese Beetle with green iridescent exoskeleton.
And boomerangs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the classic upside-down v shape to colorful and sporty tri-blades.
In a recent study, scientists examined butterfly wings with an X-ray scattering technique and discovered a cause of their green iridescent colors: light refracting crystal nanostructures known as a “gyroids”. According to this article, gyroids are “shaped like a stack of boomerangs, each with three blades...” And there you have it - iridescent boomerang butterfly wings.
What I find especially fascinating is how these gyroids are formed. Butterfly wing cells grow and fold into a gyroid shape. They also secrete chitin (the same chemical insects use to make their exoskeleton). When these cells die and decompose, they leave behind a thing of beauty - an intricate sculpture that reflects light iridescently. Not a bad legacy for any kind of life.
We know that real life is anything but neat and tidy, and so the “Boomerang” and “Different Strokes” principles do not always apply. For example, if a butterfly has landed on your hair, you’re not going to see it, regardless of your viewing angle. And I know for a fact this butterfly did not leave any frass behind, so what goes around, doesn’t always....
Leave no frass behind. (Photo courtesy H. Langhans)
My thanks to Frank Marion for the story idea and Paul Levine for the use of his butterfly photos.
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