Stable structural color patterns displayed on transparent insect wings

Stable structural color patterns displayed on transparent insect wings

Ekaterina Shevtsova, Christer Hansson, Daniel H. Janzen, and Jostein Kjærandsen

PNAS, published online before print January 3, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1017393108


Color patterns play central roles in the behavior of insects, and are important traits for taxonomic studies. Here we report striking and stable structural color patterns—wing interference patterns (WIPs)—in the transparent wings of small Hymenoptera and Diptera, patterns that have been largely overlooked by biologists. These extremely thin wings reflect vivid color patterns caused by thin film interference. The visibility of these patterns is affected by the way the insects display their wings against various backgrounds with different light properties. The specific color sequence displayed lacks pure red and matches the color vision of most insects, strongly suggesting that the biological significance of WIPs lies in visual signaling. Taxon-specific color patterns are formed by uneven membrane thickness, pigmentation, venation, and hair placement. The optically refracted pattern is also stabilized by microstructures of the wing such as membrane corrugations and spherical cell structures that reinforce the pattern and make it essentially noniridescent over a large range of light incidences. WIPs can be applied to map the micromorphology of wings through direct observation and are useful in several fields of biology. We demonstrate their usefulness as identification patterns to solve cases of cryptic species complexes in tiny parasitic wasps, and indicate their potentials for research on the genetic control of wing development through direct links between the transregulatory wing landscape and interference patterns we observe in Drosophila model species. Some species display sexually dimorphic WIPs, suggesting sexual selection as one of the driving forces for their evolution.

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