The Quick and Colorful Evolution of the Butterfly

Butterflies are beautiful, but how did they come to be so colorful and vibrant? How come some are dark and dull while others are bright and blue? A study published this past June sheds light on some of these questions.

This past June, a study was published by a team of researchers at Yale University that demonstrated the remarkable way in which butterflies evolve to acquire different colors on their wings. The researchers worked with the Bicyclus anynana, a species of brown African butterfly, and by studying the microscopic features of the butterfly wings, the researchers were able to selectively breed the butterflies whose wing structures had the closest ability to reflect violet light. After only six generations, the butterflies were born with purple wings, in contrast to six generations prior, where the butterflies were born with brown wings.

The butterfly Bicyclus anynana before it was bred to turn purple. Image via Antónia Monteiro.
The butterfly Bicyclus anynana before it was bred to turn purple. Image via Antónia Monteiro.
butterfly-wing-color-02-600x300
The scale-like structures of the wings, brown (left) prior to selective breeding, and purple (right) after 6 generations of selective breeding. Image via Antónia Monteiro

This study highlights a couple of important ideas. One is that this species of butterflies can quickly evolve to flaunt wings of a different color, making them highly responsive and adaptive to their environment. The selective breeding from the researchers reflects selective pressures on the butterflies in the wild, such as a darkening of wood, or a change of shade in foliage. The changes in the butterflies’ environment prefer certain butterflies to others, for example a redder shaded butterfly to a grayer shaded butterfly, and, as we can see in this study, in very little time this butterfly species can adapt quite effectively to this new environment.

Butterfly 2
Image via Michael Helfenbein

Another important concept this study demonstrates is the way in which animals exhibit color. While many animals, such as ourselves, exhibit and change color through changes in our pigment, the butterflies have microscopic crystalline structures on their wings that refract and reflect incoming light in different ways to reflect different colors.

Image via Géza I. Márk.
Image via Géza I. Márk.
The scale-like structure of the wings of the Cattleheart butterfly species. Image via Vinod Saranathan.
The scale-like structure of the wings of the Cattleheart butterfly species. Image via Vinod Saranathan.

This kind of information can prove helpful in engineering electronic devices, such as phones and e-readers, which can change colors quickly and efficiently, as well as in anti-counterfeiting materials.

Most importantly, this also reminds us that even the smallest and most fragile creatures can be quite remarkable.

Sources:

http://www.asknature.org/strategy/1d00d97a206855365c038d57832ebafa#.VFGoRkvao08

http://www.biology.ufl.edu/ip/2000-01/brake.pdf

http://www.nanotechnology.hu/online/2002_butterfly/

http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v3/n6/full/nrg818.html

http://news.yale.edu/2014/08/05/butterflies-are-free-change-colors-new-yale-research

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/33/12109.abstract

http://www.uchicago.edu/features/butterfly_wings_hold_clues_to_evolutionary_adaptation/

http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/04/animals-butterflies-insects-colors-evolution-science/

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s