Coloration

Helen Ghiradella

State University of New York, Albany

Coloration is, as the word implies, the tapestry of hues with which an organism arrays the surfaces that it presents to the world. The signals thus produced may aid in species identification, camouflage, warning, and temperature regulation; all in all, they serve as a mute "language" with which an individual organism may communicate its place in the community within which it lives.

Insects are master chemists whose virtuosity is particularly evident in the design of the cuticle, the nonliving material that makes up the exoskeleton and serves as the boundary between the living animal and the outside world. Cuticle, a composite of chitin fibrils and various proteins and lipids, can be tailored for strength, rigidity, flexibility, permeability, or elasticity, as needs dictate. It is also a technical and artistic medium with which insects, who are also master physicists and optical engineers, manipulate light to attire themselves with brilliant color on their bodies and wings. This article briefly reviews the bases of this ability. It begins, however, with an overview of the physics of color production, particularly with respect to structural colors, because only with this background can the reader really appreciate what a biological system, in its handling of light and color, can do.

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