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by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Butterfly Team 

Butterfly wings are covered in many tiny scales that overlap like shingles on a roof. Scales come in many different shapes and in the past, have been used to classify butterflies.

Leopard Lacewing; Cethosia cyane

Leopard Lacewing; Cethosia cyane (photo by Don Williamson Photography)

The different colors are either produced by the pigments contained in the caterpillar’s diet or by the structure of the scale itself. Colors like red are created by pigment.

Scarlet Mormon; Papilio rumanzovia

Scarlet Mormon; Papilio rumanzovia

Iridescence and colors like blues and greens are produced by unique scale shapes that refract light. If you touch a butterfly’s wings you’ll notice that the scales rub off very easily, like a fine powder. Touching the butterfly wings damages them, so we are very careful to avoid touching them.

Common morpho; Morpho peleides

Common morpho; Morpho peleides

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