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Soft Matter. 2020 Feb 19;16(7):1714-1721. doi: 10.1039/c9sm02151e.

Translucent in air and iridescent in water: structural analysis of a salamander egg sac.

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Laboratory of Artificial and Natural Evolution (LANE), Department of Genetics and Evolution, University of Geneva, Sciences III, 30, Quai Ernest-Ansermet, 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland.
Department of Quantum Matter Physics, University of Geneva, Switzerland.
School of Physics, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QL, UK and Department of Physics, University of Namur, 5000 Namur, Belgium.
Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.
Zoological Institute, Braunschweig University of Technology, Braunschweig, Germany.


Females of some Asian salamanders of the genus Hynobius deposit in streams their eggs embedded in a translucent envelope called an 'egg sac'. The edges of the envelope exhibit a spectacular blue-to-yellow iridescent glow, which instantaneously disappears when the sac is removed from water. First, our scanning electron microscopy analyses reveal that the inner surface of the 100 μm-thick envelope displays striations (length scale of about 3 μm), which are themselves covered by much smaller (190 ± 30 nm) and quasi-periodic corrugations. The latter could constitute a surface diffraction grating generating iridescence by light interference. Second, our transmission electron microscopy and focused-ion-beam scanning electron microscopy analyses show that the bulk of the egg sac wall is composed of meandering fibres with a quasi-periodic modulation of 190 ± 60 nm along the thickness of the envelope, generating a photonic crystal. Third, Fourier power analyses of 450 electron microscopy images with varying incident angles indicate that changing the surrounding medium from water to air shifts most of the backscattered power spectrum to the ultraviolet range, hence, explaining that the egg sac loses visible iridescence when removed out of the water. Fourth, the results of our photography and optical spectroscopy experiments of submerged and emerged egg sacs rule out the possibility that the iridescence is due to a thin film or a multilayer, whereas the observed non-specular response is compatible with the backscattering expected from surface diffraction gratings and volumetric photonic crystals with spatial 1D modulation. Finally, although we mention several potential biological functions of the egg sac structural colours and iridescence, we emphasise that these optical properties might be the by-products of the envelope material internal structure selected during evolution for its mechanical properties.


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