Butterfly Wings are more than just Poetry in Motion

Butterflies are solar-powered wonders. They adapt and change as days and weeks fly by with seasonal polyphenism. Their unique wing structure uses nanobiology (small and alive) to fine tune sunlight into fuel that powers their flight, allows them to alight on flowers, eat and reproduce. The unique scales on their wings are apparently tuned according to day length and to temperature. There is some research to also suggest that wet and dryness, too, reproductive needs and predator evasion may also play a part.

Polyphenism simply means that there are more than one color, shape and individual markings  that will appear and disappear as needed. This allows a variable “wardrobe” to a butterfly. In effect, butterflies dress according to the weather. Unlike human beings, who often struggle with the cumbersome amount of accessories needed for rain, sun and temperature gear, butterflies have evolved highly efficient means of accommodating hot, cold, wet, dry, time of plenty and time of danger. All of these requirements have added special features for a butterfly to gracefully glide through any time of year.

A butterfly needing to stay warm enough on a end of summer day will develop coloration that absorbs more heat. The heat allows solar-powered mobility as well as protection. Darker markings emerge upon the wings. One job of the changing colors allows blending in to confuse predators. A dark butterfly on a dark leaf will be less conspicuous. A few species of butterfly that best demonstrate seasonal polyphenism are Bicyclus Anynana, Cabbage White, Sulfur Colias and the Buckeye.

Many species may also change ventral eye-spots, those unique dark spots on wing design that mimic other creatures to suggest the threat of a larger “face” and also allow blending in to confuse predators.

Polyphenism is amazing in its many uses and the incredible range of adaptations it allows for this small but complex creature. Butterflies, transitioning through  the larval, pupal and adult stages, will effectively have wardrobe and cellular tools for every stage of life. Their scales are comprised of crystalline surfaces that reflect light in iridescent colors. Comprised of a ribbed, honeycomb-like scale structure, they absorb UV as needed. They also have melanin, just as people and other animals do, to support some of the other markings, coloration and solar cell properties of their wings.

Bio-mimicry sciences and nanotechnology are looking into these amazing adaptations in order to improve human use of solar cells, efficiency and knowledge of polyphenism. Like all organisms, butterflies are very sensitive to climate change and such over-riding issues as deforestation and pesticides. It is hoped that, as more science reveals the remarkable knowledge to be garnered by butterfly research (and all nature interactions of biology, climate, habitats, etc.), more protection will be afforded butterfly and moth species. To lose even one species of butterflies is a great loss to human potential to more efficiently adapt to healthier relationships with sustainable environments.

The very symbol of metamorphosis, butterflies continue to inspire scientists and engineers in nanotechnology, bio-mimicry and solar technology. Science is picking up where poetry, dance and music often leave off. The artistic beauty and intricate complexity of the butterfly are only beginning to be fully appreciated.