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See the Beautiful Blue Morpho at Hershey Gardens’ Butterfly Atrium

Hundreds of tropical and North American butterflies call the year 'round Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens home. Each delicate winged creature starts out as a chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly and being released into the Atrium. While only 40 to 60 butterfly species are showcased in the atrium at a time, new varieties are introduced often, depending on availability.

There is one butterfly, however, that guests who visit the Butterfly Atrium will almost always see: the blue morpho. One of the most popular—and colorful—the blue morpho is a large butterfly that flies low and slow, flashing bright, shimmering blue with each beat of its wings. When you look at its wings from different angles, the color seems to shift and change. A number of tropical butterflies have this iridescent effect on their wings. But the wings of the blue morpho are, in fact, not blue at all.

Most butterflies get their wing color by reflecting pigment. When sunlight hits the pigment, certain colors are absorbed and the rest are reflected. (Remember that sunlight is made up of all the colors of the rainbow). Something in nature that is red, for instance, absorbs all the colors with the exception of red, which is reflected; hence, a red rose.

The blue morpho gets its brilliant blue wings in a different way, called “structural coloration.” Structural coloration is color created by the microscopic surface shape of an object. The color we see on butterfly wings is on small scales that are layered on the wings like roof shingles. The actual wings are clear – yes, clear. With most butterflies, the scales contain different pigments and are arranged in a way to create the patterns we see. Yet the scales of the blue morpho wings contain no color pigmentation at all. It is the structure of the surface of the scale that creates the color.

There are microscopic ridges and divots on the scales that diffract the sunlight, acting a bit like tiny prisms. The blue morpho scales have divots that are exactly half the length of a blue wavelength deep. When blue light enters, the wave bounces back on itself amplifying the color blue, completely created by the surface structure of the scale rather than by pigment. There are several other examples of structural coloration in nature, such as the neck feathers of a pigeon, the body of a bottle fly or the “golden crown” on a monarch butterfly chrysalis. These are all created by shape and not pigments.

Visit the Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens to see the blue morpho in all its glory—and other breathtakingly beautiful butterfly species, too, flying among lush tropical plants and flowers. Hershey Gardens and the Butterfly Atrium are open daily, including Saturdays and Sundays. www.HersheyGardens.org