Pirates of Gondwana

These vibrant butterflies, are commonly known as “pirates,” (Catacroptera cloanthe cloanthe) and earn their moniker through their tenacious demeanour, fiercely guarding their territory atop bare patches of earth and warding off intruders – any intruder, including the odd inquisitive human. With dazzling hues and impressive wingspans of approximately 58mm for males and 62mm for females, they command attention as they patrol their domains along wetlands and hillsides.

Nature unfolds with perpetual spontaneity.

Beautiful wing colours of the Pirate

The wings of butterflies are made up of minuscule scales, each possessing its
own distinct shape and colour.

Examining the vibrant hues of the pirate’s wings, one can’t help but wonder how the scale-like structures composing them can bear such incredible colours. After briefly delving into this to quench our curiosity, we recognize this is a highly complex wonder of nature.

Butterfly wings are actually made up of thin layers of proteins called chitin and are supported by a system of tubular veins that allow for oxygen exchange. The wings are then covered by an intricate system of tiny scales that give butterflies their unique colour and pattern variations. 

According to learn.genetics.utah.edu, the coloration in butterfly wings can arise from either coloured pigments or structural colour, or a combination of both.

Coloured pigments function much like our familiar tools of expression: crayons or coloured pencils. Within these pigments lie molecules with unique colour properties. They selectively absorb particular wavelengths of light while bouncing others back, crafting the visual palette our eyes perceive. 

Contrastingly, the blues adorning butterfly wings emerge from structural pigments. In the colour blue, despite the molecular makeup being inherently dark, the microscopic arrangement of structures creates a phenomenon where they reflect luminous blue light, imparting an iridescent or metallic sheen. Depending on variables such as illumination angle and intensity, these regions oscillate between a profound blackness and a vivid blue.

Structural pigments also underpin whites in butterflies, often attributable to minuscule air pockets that scatter and reflect light off the surface of the wing. This optical marvel isn’t confined to butterflies alone; it’s a spectacle also observed in the plumage of birds.

All these pigments and structural marvels are the handiwork of proteins. Working in like an assembly line, these protein arrangements change raw materials into exquisitely tinted molecules. Encoded within the genes of the butterfly is the blueprints for synthesizing these proteins. Genetic variance manifests as differences in the proteins’ composition, which will influence the pigments characteristics, including their colouration and vibrancy.

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