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Scaly-winged creatures!

9 December 2009

Post 1 of ‘Learning about Lepidoptera’  Series!

Elaborate colours and arrangements of scales on the wings of butterflies and moths permit beautiful patterns.

If you look at the dazzling colours of butterflies and moths, the last thing that will probably come to your mind, is that its wings are completely covered by scales! Not scales as in the case of reptiles such as snakes or crocodiles, but scales nevertheless!

In fact, the pre-eminent biological characteristic of the group of insects we know as ‘butterflies and moths’ is precisely this – scaly wings! And it is from this feature that the scientific name for this order of insects comes!

‘Lepidos’ or λεπίδος means ‘scale’ and ‘pteron’ or πτερόν means ‘wing’ in Ancient Greek!

Looking closely at the wing, one can see the scales!

Scales cover not only the wings of butterflies and moths! They are also found on the head, body and feet of many moths and butterflies.

The series of images below will help you realise why the scales play so important a role in classifying and naming this order of insects.

Lepidoptera scales are blade-shaped, loosely attached and come off easily without harming the insect.

Lets now magnify some scales and see them very close up! Click on each image to enjoy nature’s fine architecture.

First magnification - Laid like overlapping tiles on a roof. Scales improve the aerodynamic lift of butterflywings.

Second magnification - Each scale can be seen as having ragged edges and intricately structured upper surface.

Third magnification - the long longitudinal ridges can be seen to be connected with very fine ribs. The cuticle contains pigments such as melanins which give blacks and browns. Whites and yellows are usually due to excretory deposits.

Fourth magnification - The upper surface of a scale is jagged and perforate. Blue, green and iridescence is due to the coherent scattering of light by this micro-structure.

Scales cover most parts of the head, legs, body and organs of a butterfly also. A butterfly head magnified to show the scales on the face and proboscis.

Scales not only give beautiful patterns but beautiful variations on basic patterns to different species.

A page from Adalbert Sietz's MacroLepidoptera of the World, published from 1907 to 1935 in 16 volumes.

Image credits : Wikimedia Commons

  1. Common Tortoise shell butterflyBöhringer Friedrich.
  2. Lepidoptera Wing – Karol Kin.
  3. Loose butterfly scales – Jan Homann.
  4. Scanning Electron Micrographs of scales (1 to 4) – SecretDisc. Click the image to go to its Wikimedia Commons source page.
  5. Lepidoptera head with tongueDartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility.
  6. Plate from ‘MacroLepidoptera of the World‘ – Adalbert Seitz.