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Why Are Blue Morpho Butterflies Blue? Find Out How Electron Microscopes Reveal the Answer

by Juan Pablo Hurtado Padilla -- Aug 31, 2018
Man wearing a blue and white checked shirt, sitting in a science lab with equipment behind him.

Juan Pablo Hurtado Padilla is a Microscopy Educator at the National Museum of Natural History. He focuses on the use of different types of microscopes as...

The blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) can be found in tropical areas from Mexico to South America. Smithsonian photo.
The blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) can be found in tropical areas from Mexico to South America. Smithsonian photo.

Why are blue morpho butterflies blue? Come see for yourself at a weekly presentation of how scientists use state-of-the-art equipment to understand nature’s wonders in Q?rius, The Coralyn W. Whitney Science Education Center. Watch what happens when various liquids contact blue morpho wings. See what a blue morpho sample looks like at 15,000 times magnification, a perspective revealing clues to the butterfly’s color and more.

At the museum, our researchers use electron microscopes to observe samples at high magnifications, perform chemical analysis, and capture stunning pictures. The scanning electron microscope uses electrons instead of light to create an image, thus reaching mind-blowing magnifications, allowing us to observe nature at a scale thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. For example, the new APREO Scanning Electron Microscope, which was donated to the museum by the company Thermo Fisher, can reach 1.2 million times of magnification. By comparison, a regular stereo microscope, often used in high schools, reaches 50 times magnification.

A white, rectangular structure with black-and-white striped, oblong leaf-like shapes attached to its top and bottom edges.With our hands on such an amazing tool, we decided to give the public a chance to experience the microscope’s power. We chose one the of most beautiful, interesting, and technologically advanced samples we have in the museum: the blue morpho butterfly. These butterflies are not only beautiful creatures, but also examples of how some species use the natural equivalent of nanotechnology to create amazing physical properties. Only with the use of electron microscopes were scientists able to uncover these secrets.

On Fridays – and the first Sunday of every month – I uncover the blue morpho’s secrets using electron microscope images produced by the powerful APREO SEM. Come see nature on a completely different level, and learn how color is produced, plus a little bit about optics, physics, chemistry, nanotechnology, and engineering. All that with something as simple as a butterfly.

The blue morpho presentations are free. They take place every Friday, and the first Sunday of the month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Q?rius, The Coralyn W. Whitney Science Education Center.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Juan Pablo will give the presentations in both Spanish and English.

Read this post in Spanish. (Lee este post en Español.)

Categories: Q?rius News
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