What The Heck Is This?

Illustration for article titled What The Heck Is This?

What is this material? It looks like a very tacky version of astroturf, or an arrangement of flower petals. But can you guess what it actually is?

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This frankly unappealing arrangement of colored tags awkwardly stuck in rows is, when you zoom out, one of the most famously beautiful creatures in the world. It's an extreme close-up of the eye-spot on a luna moth. Here's a wider look at the animal.

Illustration for article titled What The Heck Is This?
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The individual scales are made of chitin, but a softer kind than the type that makes up the exoskeleton of the butterfly (and a much softer kind that the kind that makes up the exoskeleton of a lobster). Each individual scale is made of ridges of chitin, linked by a thinner mesh. Within each rib, microribs run like cables up the length of the scale. It's the pigmentation of these microribs that can give a moth or butterfly its iridescence. In the luna moth, they mostly just serve as support.

Here's a view of an entire eyespot, which gives us an understanding of how the individual scales are arranged into a pattern.

Illustration for article titled What The Heck Is This?

[Via Chitin in Butterflies, Zoom Into a Butterfly's Wing]

Scale Images: Peter Znamenskiy, Moth Image: Jeremy Johnson.

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DISCUSSION

It's not to the same magnification, but here's a picture I took of an Atlas Moth. Even at this lesser degree of magnification they start to look all cute and fluffy.

Still - doesn't beat the time I put a flea in an electron microscope and found a parasite underneath one of the flea's legs. Even fleas have fleas...