Butterflies and moths are gorgeous enough in real-life size… And their beautiful wings get even prettier and more colorful under a microscope. This is where Montréal-based microbiologist Chloé Savard, aka Tardibabe, placed a gorgeous Madagascan sunset moth. With the help of her microscope and iPhone, she took a mesmerizing video showing the delicate beauty and iridescence of the insect’s fabulous wings.
The Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus) was initially categorized as a butterfly, considering its colorful appearance. However, Jacob Hübner placed it in the moth genus Chrysiridia in 1823. When placed under a microscope, you can discover that its wings are covered in microscopic scales. As Chloé explains, these help them fly, communicate, and hide from predators.
“There are usually two layers of scales on each side of a butterfly’s wing,” the scientist writes. “The top layer is superficial and covers the ground scales. Both layers differ in pigmentation, structural design as well as in biological function.”
Chloé shares some really fascinating information about why butterfly and moth scales are incredibly unique, particularly those from the Madagascan moth. First, they hold various pigments like melanin that give them hues of brown and yellow. This happens because these pigments absorb some light wavelengths while reflecting others. There are also what’s called “structural colors.” These aren’t due to pigments but rather the meticulous arrangement and layout of the scales themselves. Take the iridescence of Chrysiridia rhipheus as an example—its colors actually shift as you change your viewing angle! In essence, the black scales get their color from pigments, but the iridescent scales owe their dazzling shades to super-thin, see-through layers within the scale. And guess what? You’ll see the same phenomenal color-changing effects in peacock feathers and hummingbird plumage!
If you’ve been wondering why on Earth is day-flying moth this colorful, Chloé explains that too. I mean, it’s not really convenient “when you’re trying NOT TO DIE,” as she writes.
“The Madagascan sunset moth is just a tiny baby caterpillar, it feeds massively on a toxic plant called Omphalea. The toxins are then sequestrated in the insect’s tissues and retained as it grows into pupal and adult stages. The bright colors warn predators of the animal’s toxicity, just as bees, some frogs, reptiles, fish, and even certain octopus species! This defense mechanism is widespread in nature and is called aposematism.”
If you’re into microscopic videos as I’ve been lately, I’m sure you enjoyed this one. Make sure to follow @tardibabe on Instagram for more of these amazing shots!