Butterfly Colors

Photo: Sanja Baljkas

We humans see butterfly colors on wings as mosaics. These beautiful colors are made up of butterfly scales, also called setae, or hair. Each individual scale is made up of one color and the inlay of each creates a larger, surface decoration to us. Colors on the wings of butterflies can be beautiful or plain to us depending on the design on butterfly wings.

Butterflies see colors and patterns differently with their sensitive compound eyes. They see ultraviolet patterns (human's can't see) and can navigate using polarized light (light waves move one direction). Because of this, the colors humans see will translate differently to the butterfly.

Pigmented and Structural colors.
Photo: Deborah Hewitt

Colors on the wings of butterflies are produced by a combination of pigmented colors and structural colors. Both pigmented and structural colors display hues depending on light reflection and absorption.

1) Pigmented Butterfly Colors

The major classes of chemical pigments associated with the wing colors are melanins, flavones, corontenoids, ommochromes and pterins.

The pigmented butterfly scales display a particular color because they each absorb all wavelengths of light, except for those humans see. The pigments selectively absorb wavelengths of ultraviolet and visible light.

Pigmented Colors

  • Melanins - A dark polymer pigment found in animals and insects, specifically hair and epidermis.

    These are primarily the black and brown colors but also can be grays, tans, rusts and dull yellows.

Photo: Xunbin Pan

  • Flavones/Flavenoids - Are organic compounds found in plants that are consumed. These are butterfly host plants for caterpillars. The colors resulting from flavones are usually yellowish tones that also absorb ultraviolet light.

  • Carotenoids - Produce the red, orange to yellow butterfly colors. As with flavones, carotenoids are both animal and plant sources that are consumed.

  • Ommochromes - Made up of a breakdown of amino acids, or the building blocks of protein, that help to make up the pigmented colors of the eyes of butterflies. These are found in the Nymphalidae butterfly family.

  • Pterins - Amino acids and enzymes that also produce colors in butterfly wings. Pterins are found in all butterfly families, especially the Pieridae family.

Carotenoids, ommochromes and pterins have more complex wavelength-dependent absorption profiles found in structural colors. Other colors such as ivory to dark yellows are produced by these.

2) Structural Color

Scattering or selective light reflection (Madagascan Sunset moth)

Other brilliant colors such as greens, blues and whites that show iridescence are not pigments. The vivid structural color is a result of selective light reflection.

The physical process is called scattering. Scattering is where light and particles move in a manner not detected by the human eye.  

This is found within the structural grid of the butterfly's anatomy.

Photo: Filip Fuxa

Examples include:

  • Reflections from small air bubbles in scales create shimmery whites.

  • Brilliant blues and greens coming from their structure grid. Many Lycaenidae butterflies have iridescent blues throughout the length of scales caused from the blues running through structural veins.

As angles of the wings change from our viewing perspective, the butterfly colors change because light will pass through a transparent, multi-layered scale, reflecting it more than once. This results in multiple angles of iridescence. Another term for this is fenestration. Fenestration defined means an opening. For butterfly scales this is cellular structure within that changes wavelengths of light, including air-bubbles, which results in the shimmering wing colors.  In short, scales disrupt light frequency.

Scientists were curious about the morphogens and the development of eye spots in the Nymphalidae Family.  Learn more about this on the
Brushfooted Butterflies page.

Power & Syred state of this video:  "Light microscopy of Morpho aega butterfly wingscales demonstrating a metallic iridescent colour through interference of light rather than by the presence of a blue pigment."

Translation:  Morpho butterfly is actually brown.

Monika Landy-Gyebnar  on video: 

"Butterfly scales were put under a digital microscope with halogen lamp's transmitted backlight and showed altering colours with the altering angle of the backlight...   The same happens in transmitted sunlight."

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