The Science Behind Butterfly Wings And How They Dont Overheat

Butterfly wings: they’re beautiful, and they’re pretty cool – and we mean this in a literal sense because a new study reveals that they actually have special structures that stop them from overheating under the hot sun. Gotta admit, that’s more than cool, literally and figuratively.

Thin And Delicate

According to new thermal images released from a study, butterfly wings have their own living parts, and these are filled with veins that transport insect blood, otherwise known as hemolymph. Furthermore, their wings also have scent patches or pads that males use to release pheromones that help release more heat than the dead scales surrounding them. This makes living areas much cooler and stops them from overheating and hurting the insect itself.

Per studies, muscles in the butterfly’s thorax must first be warm so that the insect can flap its wings fast enough for takeoff, meaning that the tiniest temperature changes in their body can easily mess up their ability to fly. However, butterfly wings are very thin, which means that they can heat up faster than the thorax, running the risk of overheating.

“People might think that scale-covered butterfly wings are like a fingernail, or a feather of a bird, or human hair — they are lifeless,” Nanfang Yu, an applied physicist at Columbia University, said. That’s not true at all because wings are actually equipped with living tissues that are important in both flight and survival.

However, because butterfly wings are so thin, it can be quite hard for infrared-based cameras to distinguish whether the heat is coming from the wing or from outside sources. Because of this, Yu and colleagues employed an infrared hyperspectral imaging technique to help measure heat emissivity and wing temperature.

From there, the researchers reported that butterfly wings actually have tube-shaped nanostructures along with a layer of chitin, which is a component of the insect’s exoskeleton that actually helps release any unneeded and excess heat from any wing tissue. However, it can only protect butterflies up to a point, and it’s still up to them to keep their wings safe and functional.

morpho butterfly "Understanding iridescence in butterflies and moths has revolutionized our knowledge of natural photonics,” the researchers said in a press release. e3000 / Flickr

Join the Discussion