Design of Butterfly Wings

Design of Butterfly Wings

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.

Programmed to Change

Colour Sergeant Butterfly - Programmed to Change
When I was a child, I was introduced to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly. I decided to figure out how that change took place, so I cut open a chrysalis to see what was going on inside. Instead of catching the transformation in progress all I found was a capsule of black soup. Later when I asked biologists how the process took place, I realized that no one fully understood it. The caterpillar was programmed to change, but nobody could understand how.

What I did learn was that this process goes on in a wide variety of life forms. Frogs, sea urchins, flying wasps, and beetles are just a few examples of creatures programmed to change. The December 2018 issue of National Geographic features a wonderful article about the use of 3D models and micro-CT scanning of the process. These tools have given us a great deal of understanding of how this transformation occurs. The article identifies three stages of the change that happens as the caterpillar changes into a butterfly.

1. PROGRAMMED ACTIVATION. The caterpillar eats vegetation until it is full grown. As it does so, its hormones begin to shift with some parts of the caterpillar expanding and others becoming degenerate. The thoracic legs grow into legs that are good for grasping. Four wing buds on the caterpillar’s body begin to develop into wings, and the antennae become larger. The silk gland begins to degenerate to become the chrysalis. The proleg degenerates making the caterpillar more dependent on crawling. The mandible the caterpillar uses for chewing begins to degenerate making room for a tube for sipping nectar. The simple eye of the caterpillar which could only detect the presence or absence of light begins to change. All of this is programmed into the genetic makeup of the caterpillar.

2. TRANSFORMATION. As the prolegs degenerate, thoracic legs grow to adult size. Wings develop with full color from the four wing buds. The chewing mandibles morph into two halves that zip into pipes that make a straw-like proboscis. Simple eyes move forward closer to the brain and produce a compound eye which gives true vision.

3. EMERGENCE. The brain of the butterfly is almost completely rewired to meet flight requirements.  One thing that the butterfly seems to retain from its caterpillar stage is olfactory memories. It needs that to know where to produce the next generation of caterpillars. The butterfly sucks in air until its chrysalis breaks open. The butterfly flaps its wings for several hours to dry them and to circulate blood before flying off in search of a mate.

All of this happens in 15 to 21 days. The gut of the butterfly shifts from digesting plants to nectar in that short time. There are wonderful artistic drawings of all this in the article. The author summarizes his study by saying, “..the insect’s makeover is a programmed mix of destruction and growth. Certain cells die, and body parts atrophy. Meanwhile, other cells, in place since birth, rapidly expand in as little as two weeks, the adult emerges completely remodeled, capable of flight – and bent on finding a mate.”

We would add that no programming happens by chance. It takes intelligence to program a computer. The caterpillar programmed to change to a butterfly reflects the wisdom and intelligence of a great programmer superior to anything the software companies can offer.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Painted Lady Butterflies Out-migrate Monarchs

Painted Lady Butterflies Out-migrate Monarchs
One of the most amazing things we see in the natural world is the ability of some living things to make incredible migrations. In the past, we have described the monarch butterfly’s migrations from wintering areas in Mexico to northern parts of the United States covering a round trip of about 10,000 kilometers. However, we see that painted lady butterflies out-migrate monarchs.

Scientists have studied how the monarchs navigate such incredible distances with formidable obstacles in their way. Biologists have proposed a variety of models as to how these fragile butterflies could acquire such an ability. However, in the case of the monarchs, the journey is not made by a single butterfly but by a succession of generations.

Science News for July 21, 2018 (page 4) told about a study of another butterfly with an amazing migration. It has the scientific name Vanessa cardui and is commonly known as the painted lady butterfly. These butterflies live in Southern Europe and migrate to Africa in the fall–a distance of 12,000 km. That’s 2000 kilometers farther than the monarchs, and the journey involves crossing the Sahara Desert. As with the monarchs, scientists had believed that the migration involved several generations. New techniques allowed researchers to put markers on the painted ladies when they were caterpillars. We now know that at least some of the butterflies make this incredible journey in one lifetime.

When you look at the barriers to this migration including changes in wind direction, mountains, desert, and storms it is difficult not to be impressed with how the painted lady butterflies out-migrate monarchs. Trying to construct a possible model based on chance processes involves so many assumptions that it is hard to accept that this ability can have an evolutionary explanation. Believing that God’s creation included building a DNA set of instructions that allows the painted ladies and monarchs to migrate is not just an assumption, but the weight of the evidence supports it.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Butterfly Point of View

A Butterfly Point of View
Perhaps it would be good to see the world from a butterfly point of view. One of the wonders of the insect world is the emergence of a butterfly from a cocoon. The transformation that takes place is truly amazing as the caterpillar’ body is dissolved and reorganized into a butterfly. I remember as a kid cutting open a cocoon to see the developing butterfly and finding a gooey mass of green slime instead.

The wonder of butterflies can inspire our imagination. Someone named Margy wrote the following on February 27, 1990. Somehow this short poem found its way to me. It is a butterfly point of view of metamorphosis if a butterfly could think like a human. It’s also a reminder of how God can reshape us into something new.

In the fall, I enjoy the fresh air and falling leaves for the last time,
for soon I prepare a cocoon for myself.
A cocoon that will keep me safe and warm against the harsh winter!
I withdraw into the cocoon when it’s time, withdrawing into the darkness, away from the cold stings of the world.
I sleep and sleep, losing all energy, lying dormant.
It’s cloudy and dark. I feel the emptiness, loneliness.
I wait and wait!
And, when it’s time, God’s gentle voice tells me, “Wake up, you’re free!”
Slowly, I eat away at the cocoon, feeling the warmth of the sunshine on my face.
I step out, realizing God has blessed me with wings!
I’m anxious, but I make my first attempts to fly.
The wind helps lift me up into the gentle breeze.
I flap my wings. I’m flying! I’m free!
Once again I feel confident, confident to face the world.

 

–John N. Clayton © 2017