Types Of Color

"Light" by definition involves wavelengths within the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. For humans it consists of wavelengths ranging from approximately 400 nm (violet) to approximately 725 nm (red). Many organisms, including insects, extend this range into the near ultraviolet (300-400 nm). "White" light for a particular organism consists of all wavelengths visible to that organism. Colored light has an incomplete spectrum in which only some wavelengths are represented.

Matter interacts with white light in various ways to produce color. One way is by selective absorption of particular wavelengths by a chemical, or pigment. The absorbed wavelengths (which are determined by the pigment's molecular structure) are essentially subtracted from the total spectrum, whereas the rest are reflected or transmitted to produce the visible color. Because pigments subtract colors, as additional pigments are added to a mix, additional wavelengths are absorbed and lost to view, changing the perceived color. When all wavelengths of the visible spectrum are absorbed, we call the sensation "black." (This is a somewhat simplified view: visual physiologists and psychophysicists would point out that additional processing by the visual system tempers what humans actually "see.") Pigmentary colors may be found in the cuticle or, if that be transparent, in the underlying tissues and even in the gut contents.

A second basis for color is structural, caused by the interaction of white light with minute and precise arrays on or in the material. The effects depend on the architecture, rather than the chemical makeup of the material. Light may be reflected, refracted, or scattered, but it is not absorbed, and so structural colors are "additive": if two are combined, both sets of wavelengths are represented in the final effect. If all wavelengths of the visible spectrum are reflected, we call the sensation "white." (Technically, white, even if caused by a pigment, is always a structural color, because it is the absence of any absorption of light.) Because the underlying architecture must generally be precise and stable, most structural colors are typically produced by stiff, nonliving materials, and of these insect cuticle is literally a brilliant example.

In biological systems, pigmentary colors are more common in the "warm" range—red, orange, and yellow— although green and blue pigments do exist. Biological

FIGURE 1 Uranus riphaeus, portion of hind wing, showing the typical lepidopteran investiture of shingle-like scales (on the surface) and bristles (at the edges). The scales in the black areas are colored by a pigment, probably melanin, whereas the iridescent scales and the white bristles are structurally colored.

FIGURE 1 Uranus riphaeus, portion of hind wing, showing the typical lepidopteran investiture of shingle-like scales (on the surface) and bristles (at the edges). The scales in the black areas are colored by a pigment, probably melanin, whereas the iridescent scales and the white bristles are structurally colored.

structural colors, in contrast, are more likely to be "cool"— green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet. Figure 1 shows part of a butterfly wing: the dark colors are pigmentary, whereas the iridescent colors and the whites are structural. Many insects display both types, which are sometimes used together to produce yet additional effects. For example, a structural blue may be added to a pigmentary red to make a luminous violet, or a structural color may be "deepened" or intensified by a "backing" pigment that absorbs stray light leaking in from the "wrong" direction.

This article considers both pigmentary and structural colors. The following is a review of insect pigments, abstracted from the reviews of Chapman, Fox, and Nijhout.

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