How butterfly wings get their colour

Close-up image of the underside of T. opisena butterfly wings showing overlapping green-colored scales (left) and a zoomed-in view of a single scale (right).
Credit: Bodo Wilts

Scientists have long known that the beautiful colours of butterfly wings don’t come from pigments but instead from intricate light-diffracting assemblies of chitin, a sugar molecule.

Precisely how the butterflies produce these structures is a mystery, but researchers have for the first time observed them growing in the wings of the hairstreak butterfly (Thecla opisena).

The discovery that the structures, known as gyroids, grow in size along the length of each scale on the butterfly’s wing contradicts an earlier idea that the gyroids may arise from a “pre-folded” crystalline template.

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