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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Nov 7;272(1578):2329-35.

Pterin pigments amplify iridescent ultraviolet signal in males of the orange sulphur butterfly, Colias eurytheme.

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Arizona State University, School of Life Sciences, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA.


Animal colouration is typically the product of nanostructures that reflect or scatter light and pigments that absorb it. The interplay between these colour-producing mechanisms may influence the efficacy and potential information content of colour signals, but this notion has received little empirical attention. Wing scales in the male orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) possess ridges with lamellae that produce a brilliant iridescent ultraviolet (UV) reflectance via thin-film interference. Curiously, these same scales contain pterin pigments that strongly absorb wavelengths below 550 nm. Given that male UV reflectance functions as a sexual signal in C. eurytheme, it is paradoxical that pigments in the wing scales are highly UV absorbing. We present spectrophotometric analyses of the wings before and after pterin removal that show that pterins both depress the amplitude of UV iridescence and suppress a diffuse UV reflectance that emanates from the scales. This latter effect enhances the directionality and spectral purity of the iridescence, and increases the signal's chromaticity and potential signal content. Our findings also suggest that pterins amplify the contrast between iridescent UV reflectance and scale background colour as a male's wings move during flight.

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