Jul 27th, 2015

Butterfly Scales = Pixie Dust

When butterflies pass away in the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit, it can be a sad and difficult situation to explain to guests. So I try to use that opportunity to explain to guests how fragile and delicate these creatures are. Typically, I will allow guests to touch and feel a butterfly’s wings after they have “ended their life cycle.”

A green and black banded peacock (Papilio palinurus) resting with its wings open.

A banded peacock (Papilio palinurus) with all of its scales intact.

After showing a group of children a banded peacock, one of them informed me that it was actually pixie dust covering their wings and that’s how butterflies can fly. While this explanation is both creative and adorable, the pixie dust-like material coming off of their wings are scales! Yes, butterflies have scales. Their wings are covered with thousands of them, with about 600 scales per a square millimeter.

Up-close images of butterfly scales and tubular veins.

Up-close images of butterfly scales and tubular veins.

Butterfly wings are actually made up of thin layers of proteins called chitin and are supported by a system of tubular veins that allows for oxygen exchange. The wings are then covered by an intricate system of tiny scales that give butterflies their unique color and pattern variations. These scales help them absorb sunlight and assist them in their flight. Removing these scales makes their wings more susceptible of damage and shortens a butterfly’s lifespan.

A banded peacock missing some scales. Guests were able to touch his wings to see the scales rub off.

This was the banded peacock who completed his life-cycle. Guests were able to touch his wings to see the scales rub off.

Up-close photo of a butterfly wing and hand with scales rubbed off.

As you can see, some scales remained on my own hand after touching the butterfly’s wing.

When we touch a butterfly’s wings the oils on our fingers will remove theses scales. This is why we discourage handling or picking up butterflies in our exhibit. After all, we all just want to enjoy the butterflies right? Right. So one might ask why these scales can come off so easily if they are so vital to the butterfly. Well, it’s one of their unique adaptations. If a butterfly is caught in a spider web, they can break free because their scales can rub off. While this will shorten their lifespan, it’s a much better option than being a hungry spider’s lunch!

Hilaire Ashworth is an Assistant Butterfly Curator in the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit. Here are a few more facts about her: Q: If you were a butterfly, which one would you be? A: Bat Wing (Atrophaneura semperi)! I love the vibrant red against the black and white wings. Q: What do you do in your spare time? A: I spend most of my spare time with my adopted street cat and organic gardening. However, I love rock climbing, hiking, and spending as much time outdoors as I possibly can.

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