Insect Inspection: A Closer Look at Life's Colors

Zoom into a wing, shell, or limb to find intricate colors and patterns—insects both big and small bring plenty of surprises.

By California Academy of Sciences

Sunset moth (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Sunset Moth

It’s easy to see why the sunset moth was originally misidentified as a butterfly. Bright colors and daytime activity aren’t typical moth traits, but this Madagascar native is anything but ordinary. 

Sunset moth (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Zoom in close to see the tiny scales on its wings. Their shape is what gives the moth its radiant hues.

Bold, contrasting colors like these warn predators of the sunset moth's toxicity.

“These ‘tails’ on the rear edges of the wings break off very easily. If a predator takes a snap at the moth, they get a tail for a meal. Meanwhile, the moth escapes.”
— Dr. David H. Kavanaugh,
Curator Emeritus of Entomology

Easter egg weevils, California Academy of Sciences, 2015-09, From the collection of: California Academy of Sciences
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The brilliant, metallic patterns of Easter egg weevils deter predators, but are fascinating to scientists.

Easter egg weevils (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

These colorful weevils belong to a family called the snout beetles. Look closely and you'll see that each one sports a well-developed “nose,” eyes, and antennae.

Magnification reveals that their colors are composed of tiny, glittering discs. These iridescent scales are the world’s only known organic version of the gemstone opal.

Stream glory damselfly (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

The eye-catching green of the male stream glory damselfly’s hindwings isn’t just decoration—this sparkling display of color can woo mates or warn off competitors.

Look closely—the damselfly's wing scales are what create this brilliant iridescence.

Rainbow milkweed locust (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Rainbow milkweed locust

This locust’s body is a riot of color, its bold hues acting as a warning to predators that it’s toxic.

Rainbow milkweed locust (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

When threatened, this locust—like other members of its genus—produces a poisonous froth from openings beneath its wings. This toxin comes from the milkweed plant (which the locust eats), and is strong enough to kill animals and people.

The locust’s bright-red hindwings become visible in flight. As it takes off, the sudden flash of vivid color may startle potential predators, helping it to escape.

Locusts and other grasshoppers have powerful muscles for jumping. Their exoskeletons have evolved large femurs to accommodate their muscular build.

“Grasshoppers can be either long-horn or short-horn. The antennae of long-horns are at least as long as their bodies; the length of these antennae make it clear this locust is a short-horned grasshopper.”
— Norman Penny,
Sr. Entomology Collections Manager (1984 - 2016)

Comet moth, California Academy of Sciences, 2015-09, From the collection of: California Academy of Sciences
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The comet moth gets its name from its long, fluttering hindwings.

Comet moth (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Look closely at the spots on its wings—they’re intricate studies in color, and critical to the moth’s defense.

When threatened, the comet moth can quickly open its wings. The sudden appearance of “eyes” may startle predators, or redirect the attack away from the moth’s more vulnerable body parts.

Yes, this male moth is missing its abdomen. Male comet moths contain oily scent glands, and some collectors discard the abdomens to avoid stains or smells. It's possible that's what happened here, or the abdomen may simply have broken off this fragile specimen.

Iridescent beetles (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

These two beetle species—six shining leaf chafers, and one golden scarab—have shells that dazzle with reflected light.

Iridescent beetles (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

The shining leaf chafers all shine with green-gold iridescence. But look closely—no two truly match.

Exploring individual differences helps us to understand species as a whole.

Bird feathers (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Discover more of the California Academy of Sciences' Macro Color collection here. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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