Collaboration Produces Surprising Insights Into White Spots on Butterfly Wings

A collaboration between biologists and materials scientists at the University of Pennsylvania is yielding new insights into the wings of the “skipper butterfly” in the Costa Rican rainforest. What they learn could lead to technological advancements in systems ranging from power-efficient computer displays to sensors to energy efficient buildings, windows and vehicles.

Shu Yang, a professor of materials science and engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been conducting research to mimic the color, reflectance and texture of butterfly wings. Daniel Janzen, a professor of biology who studies tropical butterfly biodiversity for its many uses, reached out to strike up a collaboration following Yang’s curiosity about Janzen’s work with Swedish researchers on the causes of colors of wasp wings. The new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Yang, Janzen, postdoc Dengteng Ge, alumnus Gaoxiang Wu, graduate student Hye-Na Kim and Penn biologist Winnie Hallwachs.

The researchers noticed that the white patches on the wings of skipper butterflies looked very different, depending on the angle at which they were observed. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​While sorting through boxes of thousands of butterflies, Burns and Janzen noticed that the white on these butterflies’ wings looked very different, depending on the angle at which they were observed. Janzen took them to Yang to ask the simple question of why and to find out what researchers know about white colors in nature.

When Yang took up the challenge, Janzen noted that the bright reflecting white light would be very noticeable in the evening and dark understory of the rain forest where they live.

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