Deciphering Butterflies’ Designer Colors: Findings Could Inspire New Hue-Changing Materials


Lyndsay Meyer
The Optical Society

Deciphering Butterflies’ Designer Colors: Findings Could Inspire New Hue-Changing Materials


Read caption below.
The wings of the three types of butterflies under study. From left to right: front views of P. peranthus, P. blumei, and P. ulysses. The rightmost panel is a side view of P. ulysses. Credit: Optical Materials Express. Click to view larger images.

Read caption below.
Scanning electron microscope image showing seven-layer cuticle structure of a cross-section of Papilio blumei wing scale at almost 30,000x magnification. This structure appears green when viewed from above, and blue from a sharp angle. Image courtesy H.L. Tam and K. W. Cheah, Hong Kong Baptist University. Click to view larger images.

Read caption below.
Same cross-section as above, at almost 60,000x magnification. Image courtesy H.L. Tam and K. W. Cheah, Hong Kong Baptist University. Click to view larger images.

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2013—Butterfly wings can do remarkable things with light, and humans are still trying to learn from them. Physicists have now uncovered how subtle differences in the tiny crystals of butterfly wings create stunningly varied patterns of color even among closely related species. The discovery, reported today in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal Optical Materials Express, could lead to new coatings for manufactured materials that could change color by design, if researchers can figure out how to replicate the wings’ light-manipulating properties.
“It was very exciting to see how nature can create a nanostructure that’s not easy to replicate by humans,” says Kok Wai Cheah, a physicist at Hong Kong Baptist University. He and his colleagues are the first to investigate the color-creating mechanisms in multiple butterfly species within a single genus.
The three tropical butterflies the researchers studied all display iridescence, a property of materials that change color depending on the viewing angle, but they do so with different colors. Papilio ulysses, the Ulysses butterfly or blue mountain swallowtail, appears bluish green when seen from above. Its cousin Papilio peranthus, by contrast, looks yellowish green from above, and a third relative, Papilio blumei, the green swallowtail, is more of a deep green. All three shift toward deep blue when viewed from a sharp angle.
To probe the physics behind the wings’ structural colorations, the scientists examined a cross-section of each species’ wing under a scanning electron microscope. The team found that the wings contain specialized architectures in which solid flat layers known as cuticles alternate with thin “air” layers known as laminae. The laminae aren’t entirely empty space, however; they also contain pillars of the cuticle material, which gives the wing a repeating crystal-like structure. This structure is similar to what is known as a Bragg reflector—essentially a multi-layered mirror that reflects only certain wavelengths, or colors, of light.
The researchers then measured the light spectrum reflected from the wing at different angles, using a technique called angle-resolved reflection spectroscopy. They found that the varying colors of the three species’ wings arise from slight differences in crystal parameters. P. ulysses has seven cuticle layers, for example, while P. peranthus has eight. The thicknesses of the cuticles and air layers also vary between species. Cheah notes that even though these differences are slight, they have a major effect on the butterflies’ appearance. “It all comes from the fact the wing structure has subtle differences between these three types of butterfly,” he says.
Cheah thinks the lessons learned from Papilio butterfly wings could lead to designer materials that wouldn’t need to be painted or dyed one specific color. The same article of clothing, for example, could reflect a subdued color during the workday, and a more ostentatious one at night. “You would just tune your structure to produce the color you want,” says Cheah.
The team next plans to investigate color-generating mechanisms in other insect body structures, such as the metallic effect produced by iridescent beetle shells.
Paper: "Iridescence and nano-structure differences in Papilio butterflies," Optical Materials Express, H. L. Tam, et al., Vol. 3, Issue 8, pp. 1087-1092 (2013).
EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution images of the butterflies and their wings’ structures are available to members of the media upon request.  Contact Lyndsay Meyer,

About Optical Materials Express

Optical Materials Express (OMEx) is OSA's newest peer-reviewed, open-access journal focusing on the synthesis, processing and characterization of materials for applications in optics and photonics. OMEx, which launched in April 2011, primarily emphasizes advances in novel optical materials, their properties, modeling, synthesis and fabrication techniques; how such materials contribute to novel optical behavior; and how they enable new or improved optical devices. For more information, visit

About OSA

Uniting more than 180,000 professionals from 175 countries, the Optical Society (OSA) brings together the global optics community through its programs and initiatives. Since 1916 OSA has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing educational resources to the scientists, engineers and business leaders who work in the field by promoting the science of light and the advanced technologies made possible by optics and photonics. OSA publications, events, technical groups and programs foster optics knowledge and scientific collaboration among all those with an interest in optics and photonics. For more information, visit