From Sea to Sky: A Closer Look at Life's Colors

Magnify the surface of a leaf, feather, or shell, and a colorful landscape comes into view. Up close, life’s colors can be surprisingly intricate and complex.

By California Academy of Sciences

Bird eggs, California Academy of Sciences, 2015-09, From the collection of: California Academy of Sciences
Show lessRead more

The multi-colored beauty of bird eggs comes from two pigments. The palette is simple, but its purpose is complex.

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

“No two eggs look exactly alike, and sometimes there can be great variation in egg color and pattern even within a single species.”
— Dr. Jack Dumbacher,
Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy

Scientists hypothesize that each egg’s unique pattern and hue may function as camouflage, sunblock, or egg identification.

In fact, these hard-working colors may do all these things at once—and more.

Glory bush (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Glory Bush

The glory bush is pretty, but it’s also tough. Most pests avoid it, and it’s no shrinking violet about expanding its territory.

Glory bush (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Zoom in close, and you’ll see a dense coat of fine hairs covering the plant’s leaves and stems.

These hairs probably work as a fuzzy suit of armor, warding off predators that might otherwise take a bite.

Candy cane snail shells (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Candy Cane Snail Shells

These colorful snails live on forest trees on only one island in the Caribbean. They’ve been admired for centuries, but are over-collected because of their colorful patterns. The reason for their individual patterns and hues isn’t fully understood.

Candy cane snail shells (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Snails grow by adding calcium carbonate to the open edge of their shells, creating a hard casing that spirals outwards as they grow.

The source of the snail’s bright stripes hasn’t been rigorously studied, but it’s worth noting that one of the snail’s host trees, the bloodwood, is used to make dye. Depending on the acidity, the hues that the wood produces are red, yellow, purple, or blue.

Bird feathers, California Academy of Sciences, 2015-09, From the collection of: California Academy of Sciences
Show lessRead more

These colorful feathers belong to male pheasants and guinea fowl. These birds don’t do a lot of flying, preferring to forage on the ground and run for cover when there’s trouble.

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

Their vivid plumage may not get much use in flight, but brightly colored males may be more successful at attracting mates.

Feathers are made of the protein keratin, which is the same protein that makes up human hair and fingernails.

Spur flower (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

Spur Flower

The spur flower has a pungent aroma, released by the tiny orange glands that dot the undersides of its leaves. These glands may protect the leaves from drying out, or from insect attacks.

Spur flower (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

These orange glands grow only on the undersides of this plant’s leaves. The top and bottom surfaces of a leaf often aren’t the same; they get different levels of exposure to sun and moisture, and they have different roles to play for the plant.

Spur flowers have more than one line of defense. In addition to their layer of leaf hairs, the essential oils of this plant may repel insects and stop them from laying their eggs on its leaves.

This area shows damage to the leaf. It may have been caused by dryness, or an insect may have managed to get past the spur flower’s defenses.

The plant’s strong smell hasn’t stopped people in southeastern Africa from planting it around their homes. Though undocumented, local wisdom holds that the spur flower deters snakes.

Green sea urchin, California Academy of Sciences, 2015-09, From the collection of: California Academy of Sciences
Show lessRead more

These colorful shapes look like the work of an artist, but they once belonged to living creatures: green sea urchins.

Green sea urchin (2015-09) by California Academy of SciencesCalifornia Academy of Sciences

In life, the urchin’s green spines and flesh covered these internal skeletons (called tests), and their intricate detail was hidden from view. The test functions much like our skeleton, providing support and protection for the animal’s systems.

“Urchins have elastic, versatile structures called tube feet that help them breathe, move, and gather food. The tiny pairs of holes here show where tube feet were once attached.”
— Dr. Rebecca Johnson, Co-Director of Community Science

Rainbow milkweed locust (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.
Google apps