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How Butterflies Keep Their Wings Cool

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Y:      Hey Don, have you ever wondered how butterflies keep their wings from overheating in the sun?

D:      I can’t say that I have, Yäel. Aren’t butterfly wings made of dead membranes and scales anyway?

Y:      No, butterfly wings actually contain a complex network of living cells. There are sense organs along the veins of the wings that measure strain, deformation, and wing beat frequency. Nerve cells carry the information they gather back to the butterfly’s central nervous system. This information is essential for controlling flight. Some butterflies have a small “heart” in their wings that beats dozens of times per minute to carry blood-like fluid to a scent organ.

D:      I see. I imagine that the living cells in a butterfly’s wing need more protection from extreme temperatures than the rest of the body because the wings are so thin.

Y:      That’s right. In 2020 an interdisciplinary team of American researchers published a study on how butterflies keep their wings cool. Using a specialized infrared camera, they found that the living parts of the wings, around the wing veins, were best at radiating heat.

They discovered this was due to differences in the thickness of the wing cuticle, and tiny tube-shaped nanostructures that help radiate heat.

D:      Do butterflies protect their wings by their behavior, too?

Y:      Yes, they do. The researchers found that butterflies can determine the direction and intensity of sunlight on their wings. They respond with a whole repertoire of special behaviors to prevent their wings from overheating or getting too cold.

D:      This knowledge might really come in handy for technological systems, such as computer chips, that also need to be kept cool.

butterfly

A swallowtail butterfly in the wild. (Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever wondered how butterflies keep their wings from overheating in the sun? Maybe you didn't worry about this problem because you assumed butterfly wings were made of dead membranes and scales.

But butterfly wings actually contain a complex network of living cells. There are sense organs along the veins of the wings that measure strain, deformation, and wing beat frequency. Nerve cells carry the information they gather back to the butterfly’s central nervous system. This information is essential for controlling flight. Some butterflies have a small “heart” in their wings that beats dozens of times per minute to carry blood-like fluid to a scent organ.

The living cells in a butterfly’s wing need more protection from extreme temperatures than the rest of the body because the wings are so thin. In 2020 an interdisciplinary team of American researchers published a study on how butterflies keep their wings cool. Using a specialized infrared camera, they found that the living parts of the wings, around the wing veins, were best at radiating heat.

Butterflies also protect their wings by their behavior. The researchers found that butterflies can determine the direction and intensity of sunlight on their wings. They respond with a whole repertoire of special behaviors to prevent their wings from overheating or getting too cold.

This knowledge might really come in handy for technological systems, like computer chips, which also need to be kept cool.

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