The well-tuned blues: The role of structural colours as optical signals in the species recognition of a local butterfly fauna (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae: Polyommatinae)

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The photonic nanoarchitectures responsible for the blue colour of the males of nine polyommatine butterfly species living in the same site were investigated structurally by electron microscopy and spectrally by reflectance spectroscopy. Optical characterization was carried out on 110 exemplars. The structural data extracted by dedicated software and the spectral data extracted by standard software were inputted into an artificial neural network software to test the specificity of the structural and optical characteristics. It was found that both the structural and the spectral data allow species identification with an accuracy better than 90 per cent. The reflectance data were further analysed using a colour representation diagram built in a manner analogous to that of the human Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage diagram, but the additional blue visual pigment of lycaenid butterflies was taken into account. It was found that this butterfly-specific colour representation diagram yielded a much clearer distinction of the position of the investigated species compared with previous calculations using the human colour space. The specific colours of the investigated species were correlated with the 285 flight-period data points extracted from museum collections. The species with somewhat similar colours fly in distinct periods of the year such that the blue colours are well tuned for safe mate/competitor recognition. This allows for the creation of an effective pre-zygotic isolation mechanism for closely related synchronic and syntopic species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1745-1756
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number73
Publication statusPublished - Aug 7 2012



  • Artificial neural network
  • Butterfly scale
  • Colour
  • Flight period
  • Photonic nanoarchitecture
  • Reflectance spectra

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering

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