This morning, I stumbled across this fantastic photograph from Thomas Shahan (@) that was produced for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. It shows the same Chrysina sp. beetle illuminated under different lighting conditions.
The beetles are famed for their characteristic “jeweled” appearance that easily catches the eye with its brilliant shades of gold or silver. But what is it that imparts all this glitz onto these curious little Coleopterans? Furthermore, why would evolution select for such a seemingly conspicuous appearance?
In 2011, a study published by researchers at the University of Costa Rica provided an answer. The researchers postulated that the layers of chitin making-up the beetles’ cuticle likely had different refractive indices which split the light into various wavelengths that subsequently recombined to create the metallic appearance through some form of collective interference. In other words, the layered material within the cuticle was separating the light like a prism and then progressively combining and reflecting those ‘parcels’ of light to both amplify the their brightness and create the glimmering colors.
Using a device specifically designed to measure the reflection of light as it struck the beetles’ elytra, the researchers demonstrated that when light strikes the interface between each successive layer of chitin, one portion of that light is reflected and another portion is transmitted down to the next interface. As this occurs successively down the layers of chitin, the brilliant gold or silver metallic effects are produced.
According to the Optical Society of America, which operates the open access journal in which the study was published, “In the two beetle species, interference patterns are produced by slightly different wavelengths of light, thus producing either silver or gold colors. For the golden-like beetle, the constructive interference is found for wavelengths larger than 515 nm, the red part of the visible wavelength range, while for the silver-like beetle it happens for wavelengths larger than 400 nm — that is, for the entire visible wavelength range.“
All that is fantastic, but shouldn’t a brilliantly gold or silver beetle stand out in the crowd a bit and attract the attention of predators? Recalling a previous post on how harlequin beetles can be camouflaged using a bright orange coloration, conspicuousness is really a subjective observation and depends on the conditions of both the observer and the environment. While the beetles may be very conspicuous in a laboratory or when viewed under artificial light, the researchers from the University of Costa Rica suggest that they may blend in quite well with the under the conditions of their native rainforest habitat.
According to William Vargas, the lead researcher on the study, “The metallic appearance of these beetles may allow them to be unnoticed, something that helps them against potential predators.” Their elytra “reflects light in a way that they look as bright spots seen from any direction. In a tropical rainforest, there are many drops of water suspended from the leaves of trees at ground level, along with wet leaves, and these drops and wet leaves redirect light by refraction and reflection respectively, in different directions. Thus, metallic beetles manage to blend with the environment.“
- Beetle Bling: Researchers Discover Optical Secrets of Metallic Beetles. – The Optical Society
- Campos-Fernández, C., Azofeifa, D. E., Hernández-Jiménez, M., Ruiz-Ruiz, A., & Vargas, W. E. (2011). Visible light reflection spectra from cuticle layered materials. Optical Materials Express, 1(1), 85-100. PDF Available