Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gorgeous Jeweled Beetle Reveals Its Tricks

Aside from dolphins and aliens, my favorite things to write about are bugs. Wired Science gave me another opportunity to this week:

Gorgeous Jeweled Beetle Reveals Its Tricks

Japanese jewel beetle
Image: Takehiko Sato.
The Japanese jewel beetle has been a prized ornament since ancient times, and now researchers have revealed the secret to its scintillating good looks.

Brilliant metallic purples and greens run the length of each beetle's body. Each color band corresponds to varying numbers of stacked chitin layers in its wing covers. These nano-scale layers scramble light and reflect an iridescent sheen, reported a team from the Netherlands and Japan in the Mar. 12 issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

 “This surprises me. I’ve always assumed they had the same number of layers throughout the body,” said Dave Kavanaugh, curator of the insect collection at the California Academy of Sciences, who was not involved with the study. “It makes the color change much less accidental.”

For many iridescent insects, color seems incidental, a quirk of the cuticle surface. In the insects Kavanaugh studies, surface ridges cause visible iridescence, but their primary job is to deflect water or mud. Many are active at night, when their colors can’t be seen. But the Japanese jewel beetle's surface is smooth, and the study's authors suspect that iridescence helps these insects recognize each other and find mates.

If you find yourself in Japan, on a summer walk through the woods, you might find one yourself. If you can’t make it to Japan, enjoy these photographs.

See the full gallery on Wired Science

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