We tend to view the wings of a butterfly as we do our fingernails or hair. We think of them as lifeless, rigid structures that serve as airfoils only useful for flying. Researchers at Columbia University led by Dr. Nanfang Yu have discovered that butterfly wings are more than inert tissue. The wings are equipped with living tissues that serve other critical factors for the butterflies. The design of butterfly wings is more than beautiful.
Using thermal imaging, the scientists measured the emissivity of the wings. That means the ability of the wings to emit thermal energy. Butterfly wings have veins that carry hemolymph (insect blood). Male butterflies also have scent patches that release pheromones for attracting mates. The researchers found that the emissivity of the veins and patches was very high. That means the wings of butterflies are engineered to emit thermal energy to prevent the insect from overheating in the hot sun.
The veins of the butterfly wings are covered with a thick layer of chitin, which is the material that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton. The patches on the wings have tube-shaped nanostructures and extra chitin. Thick and hollow materials are better at radiating heat than thin, solid materials. Butterflies are designed to handle high temperatures, and science is just beginning to understand how the design of butterfly wings works to cool the insects.
The study included more than 50 different butterfly species. The conclusion the scientists reached is that butterfly wings are “living structures” not inert material. The design of butterfly wings prevents the insect from overheating as well as allowing it to fly.
That butterfly in your garden is not only beautiful but a creature with a highly complex design. We are still learning about the fantastic transformation that takes place when a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. The study of the butterfly’s wings adds another layer of design and intelligence to what God has done with these incredible insects.
— John N. Clayton © 2020
You can read the full report with pictures at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-14408-8.