Working in the Amazon rainforest has its challenges. To name an obvious one, it can be difficult to lug equipment into remote field sites to conduct research. Fortunately we live in a time when technology is rapidly becoming both cheaper and more portable. I'd like to describe a couple tools that I used to examine the butterflies below. Then I'll discuss the fascinating ways these creatures create color.
For starters, digital SLR cameras and macro lenses are powerful handheld tools that I use to document the biological diversity of the tiny creatures that inhabit South America. I'm currently using a Canon 70D camera body equipped with the shockingly powerful MP-E 65 Macro lens. This lens is truly a macro beast, magnifying up to five times (a magnification ratio of 5:1), allowing me to get sharp images of microscopic structures, such as butterfly wing scales. For shots of the whole organism, I typically use the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L macro lens, which I really love for its versatility and sharpness. The 100mm and MP-E 65 are a fantastic combination for macro photography in the field, allowing me to document small organisms such as insects, as well as zoom in even closer to resolve specific regions.
As an entomologist in the Amazon, I've been able to study a broad range of fascinating creatures, from glowing worms to tentacled caterpillars. Recently I've become fascinated by the wings of butterflies and moths and specifically, how these organisms produce such an incredible array of colors.
Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera and all members have scales covering their bodies and wings (in Latin, lepis means scale and ptera means wing). With over 180,000 species, the Lepidoptera are not only diverse in their numbers but also in their colors. Their color arises due to the nature of the scales that they produce and can be due to pigmentation as well as structural color. Whatever the origin, color results from an interaction between light and matter.
But even with the best macro lenses, it's still tough to resolve the scale structures on the wings of these insects. To get really close, we need to get into microscopy. But any of us familiar with using a microscope know that they are big, cumbersome, expensive pieces of equipment - not exactly compatible with field work. However, last year I came across an ingenious invention by a lab at Stanford: the Foldscope, an origami foldable microscope that costs about one dollar.
The Foldscope is quite useful when investigating small critters in the Amazon.
Here is a dirunal moth in the family Uraniidae. Notice how the scales that appeared green shift to purple under the Foldscope. I imagine that the colored scales have microstructures that produce green wavelengths under normal sunlight conditions and that changing the incoming light in the microscope has shifted the wavelength output. This is the reason Morpho butterflies appear iridescent blue, due to the structure of their nanoscales (called mullions).