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Butterfly Wings

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Butterflies have fascinated mankind for centuries and have long been interpreted in many different ways, from spiritual omens to representations of the human spirit. Still, the beautiful delicate beauty of butterfly wings belies both their intricate design and practical functionality as a natural foil for harmful predators. Although no one is quite sure where butterflies get their wonderful iridescent colors, it is believed by some that butterflies are born with natural coloring and colors due to mixtures of earth and water, which create a luminescence of colors that is believed to be caused by exposure to light. It is also thought that butterflies are able to generate their own color-producing chemicals in order to give off a stunning array of colors, including red, yellow, orange and purple. Whatever the exact reasons behind their amazing appearance, butterflies still are an object of fascination for many people.

Monarch Butterfly Wings Spread Full Body Photograph by Ron Tackett

The structure of butterfly wings is composed of a series of incredibly thin, butterfly-patterned scales. These are made up of honeycomb-shaped chambers, or cells, filled with air. In order to meet the resistance and aerodynamic forces of the air, the cells are filled with air-filled sacs that form a framework around the honeycomb sections. And because the wings are made up of thousands of these tiny scales, they are extremely fragile and can easily break if mishandled.

But the scales are also like strips of cloth, and because of this, they tend to fray and rub together very easily, causing the colors to blur and blending. This makes the entire structure weaker than its intended strength, leading to the common tendency to crush or even tear them. Some people believe that this constant rubbing causes the colors to shift from their true colors, but scientific evidence refutes this idea completely.

If this theory were actually proven true, it would mean that the tiny scales are not functional for flight, and the entire butterfly wings structure was unsound. But the truth is, while the structure does degrade with wear and tear, butterfly wings are made up of several layers of scales, each with a distinctly different purpose. In order for the structure to maintain its strength, each of these layers needs to be strong and tough. And it’s this functionality that’s responsible for allowing butterflies to fly without collapsing under the combined weight of their wings. The fact that the tiny scales are actually feathery, rather than tough means that they are more flexible than their scales-they don’t just break off, but come back stronger when torn again.

Researchers discover how butterfly wings appear bright and colorful |  Editage Insights

The most obvious part of a butterfly’s wing is its “wing span”, which is usually measured by the distance between its two uppermost wings. The length of these wings, combined with the number of times the wing has been stretched over its lifetime, gives butterfly registries the ability to determine a butterfly’s age and identify specimens. For example, a well preserved butterfly might look exactly the same as a newly hatched caterpillar, to a butterfly growing on a caterpillar that is already very old may have some brown spots on its back and might look like a moth.

Although not many people understand it, many butterfly species actually have a skeleton. These serve to support the wings, which are constructed out of a complex array of scales. Just as we humans have our skeleton, so do all butterflies, except for the monarch butterfly. Their skeletons are composed mainly of keratin, a protein found in all living things.

The majority of butterfly wings are decorated with iridescence, the process of painting the outer portion of the wing with a particular iridescence. This iridescence can take many forms, with some characteristics are common to all types of scales. When viewing the wings of a butterfly, notice that there is generally a broad stripe running along the middle of the scale. This is called the principal vein, which is composed of a series of tiny scales running parallel to it. Individual colors can be seen throughout the iris, ranging from metallic to green.


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It is possible for someone to create their own butterfly wings by outlining a butterfly’s entire wing with a paperclip or other thin object. Then, paint a series of vertical lines down the inside of the wing, just as we outline the insides of our skin with colors. A butterfly emerging from a butterfly house will have a number of butterfly wings lined up side-by-side in a “lotus flower” fashion. Each different color in the pattern has a meaning. In addition to iridescence, there are also many different symbolisms and colors associated with butterflies, such as the yellow jasmine which symbolizes innocence, pink which is the female butterfly, and royal purple which is associated with wealth.

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