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What makes butterflies so colorful?

What makes butterflies so colorful?

Butterflies are some of the most colorful and vibrant insects in the world. Their wings come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns that can be striking and beautiful. But what causes butterflies to have such colorful wings? The colors and patterns are the result of several factors, including pigmentation, structural colors, and genetics. By understanding what contributes to butterfly wing coloration, we can better appreciate the diversity and splendor of these insects.


One of the primary factors that contributes to butterfly wing coloration is pigmentation. Pigments are chemical compounds that selectively absorb and reflect certain wavelengths of light. The pigments contained in the scales on butterfly wings determine the color we perceive. Some of the main pigments found in butterflies include:

  • Melanin – Produces blacks, browns, and tans
  • Ommochromes – Produce yellows, reds, and browns
  • Pteridines – Produce whites, yellows, and oranges
  • Papiliochromes – Produce blues, greens, and violets

The concentration and combination of these pigments in the wing scales create the diverse array of butterfly wing colors. For example, the presence of melanin results in dark-colored wings, while high levels of ommochromes lead to reddish hues. By mixing different pigments, virtually any color can be produced.

Structural Colors

In addition to pigments, the physical structure of the tiny scales on butterfly wings also contributes to color through structural coloration. Rather than absorbing certain wavelengths, structural colors selectively reflect specific colors through mechanisms like diffraction, interference, and scattering of light.

Some examples of structural colors in butterfly wings include:

  • Iridescent blues – Caused by diffraction of light through nano-scale ridges on scales.
  • Metallic golds and silvers – Produced by light scattering from layers in scales.
  • Vibrant greens – Formed by interference between light reflections from the tops and bottoms of scales.

These optical mechanisms allow butterflies to display vivid metallic and iridescent colors that pigments alone can’t produce. The shimmering greens of the Emerald Swallowtail and the electric blues of the Blue Morpho butterfly are produced largely by structural coloration.


In addition to pigments and structures, genetics plays a key role in determining the colors and patterns on butterfly wings. Each species possesses a different set of genes that code for specific wing traits. Common genetic controls over color include:

  • Genes for pigment synthesis – Regulate production of pigments like melanin and pteridines.
  • Genes for structural scale development – Control formation of structures like ridges and layers.
  • Patterning genes – Determine where and how pigments and structures are deposited to form stripes, spots, and eyespots.

Mutations in any of these genes can lead to changes in color and pattern. Novel mutations occasionally produce new wing traits that better help butterflies adapt and survive in their environments.


Some butterflies have evolved wing coloration and patterns that mimic other species as a form of protection. By looking similar to butterflies that predators avoid, mimics gain protection from being eaten. Common examples of butterfly mimicry include:

  • Monarch and Viceroy butterflies mimicking each other’s orange and black warning colors.
  • Non-toxic swallowtail species resembling toxic species like the Pipevine Swallowtail.
  • Edible species mimicking the distinct patterns of unpalatable butterflies in the Heliconius genus.

These mimicry complexes rely on very specific genetic adaptations for wing traits that match other unpalatable species in the environment.


Some butterflies use wing coloration as a means of thermoregulation. Dark colored wings are able to absorb heat from sunlight, raising the butterfly’s body temperature. In cooler climates, species may rely on dark pigments like melanin to warm themselves for flight and activity. Conversely, light colored wings can reflect excess heat that could potentially overheat the insect. Selective pressure favors wing colors that allow butterflies to maintain ideal temperatures.

Attracting Mates

Vibrant wing pigments and structural colors also serve an important purpose in attracting mates. In many species, females preferentially select males with bright, elaborate patterns and iridescent ornamentation. These traits serve as indicators of fitness and genetic quality when choosing a mate. As a result, sexual selection reinforces the development of striking colors and visual effects in butterfly courtship.


From pigments and structures to genetics and behavior, a variety of factors contribute to the diversity of butterfly wing colors we observe in nature. These vibrant and complex traits serve critical purposes in thermoregulation, mimicry, and courtship. By appreciating the science behind butterfly colors, we gain insight into the selective pressures that drive evolution, illuminating the intricate connections between insect physiology, adaptation, and reproductive success. If you look closely, butterfly wings showcase the dynamic interplay between chemical, physical, and biological processes in creating one of nature’s most stunning displays.

Pigment Color Produced
Melanin Blacks, browns, tans
Ommochromes Yellows, reds, browns
Pteridines Whites, yellows, oranges
Papiliochromes Blues, greens, violets
Structural Color Mechanism
Iridescent blues Diffraction from nano-scale ridges
Metallic golds and silvers Scattering from layered scales
Vibrant greens Interference between scale surfaces