This article originally appeared on Atlas Obscura. It is part of Climate Desk’s collaboration.
Aaron Pomerantz, a biologist, saw tiny, invisible jets zipping along the Peruvian rainforest trail while he was trekking. It took him eight hours to get there by boat. He said, “I was there trying to catch them,” and “these just changed direction.”
He was able to see clear-winged butterflies for the first time. These insects are native to Central and South American forests. They have an amazing camouflage method: they can be seen through or “glass” their wings, making them difficult to find in dense understory.
Pomerantz is the lead author of the Journal of Experimental Biology study that examined how clear wings form. It’s much harder for predators not to spot you if you have an invisible cloak. There are many transparent species in oceans, but it is much more common on land. This really brings up the issue of “What is it like to be transparent on Land?”
Pomerantz, his collaborators at Caltech, University of California Berkeley and the Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole) studied the wings of the Greta 0_ species, otherwise known as the glasswing butterflies, during various stages of their pupal development. The microscopic scales can be modified in shape or density to create butterfly colors. An extra layer of tiny waxy pillars acts as an antiglare coating.
If it seems like a unique adaptation, it’s not. Pomerantz says that this adaptation has been modified many times. He notes that there are hundreds of species of moths and butterflies with glass wings. Though they represent only a small portion of the order Lepidoptera, they make up most of the rare instances of such transparency on land. Another example is the glass frog, which has varying levels of skin transparency.
On the contrary, oceans are full of see-through species. These include jellyfish, sponges, crustaceans and cephalopods as well as fish. Two rare glimpses of a glass Octopus were captured earlier in 2021 during an expedition aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel falkor to the waters off remote Phoenix Islands in Pacific Ocean. It turns out that being invisible is easier in water than it is on land due to the physical and visual properties of water.
Laura Bagge, a marine biologist says that it can be compared to putting a glass piece in water. It is far less feature-rich than the environment on land and doesn’t require gravity to exist. These animals tend to be watery and buoyant, with no backbones or structures necessary for survival on the ground.
Think of the Jaws classic scene. This is the view from the shark’s perspective. A swimmer stands in the shadows against the sunlight streaming from above. Transparency helps you get by. Underwater predators can easily see transparent shapes where the sun shines. Bagge says that even deep in the ocean, it is still useful as a lot of bioluminescent animal emit light.
Bagge, now a senior biologist with Torch Technologies in Florida became interested in animal transparency while on a research cruise to complete her Duke University dissertation. Bagge had reached for a bucket of marine creatures, and found a strange specimen. She says, “It was tough, almost like a lobster. But it was completely transparent.” The shrimp-like crustacean Cystisoma was what it was. It can grow to as big as the human hand. They are cool due to their hard outer shells and packed full of muscle. What is the best way to make this clear?
She discovered that Cystisoma Shells have microscopic bumpy structures, similar to the ones found on wings of glasswing butterflies. This nanostructure has inspired anti-reflective coatings for solar panels, cameras, and glasses. Other adaptations have been made to Cystisoma‘s muscles, which Bagge will be discussing in a future paper.
Clear can seem cool, but sometimes opaque is better than clear. Two cephalopods, the Japetella heathi octopus and Onychoteuthis banksii cephalopods, have the best of both the biological searchlights and opaqueness to evade deep-sea predators.
Bagge says that most of their time, they are clear. But if they see a predator shining a blue light, it causes them to switch to a pigmented cloak which absorbs the light. It would feel like shining light on a night window with a flashlight if they were transparent to that extent. Instead of reflecting light back to yourself, you would absorb it like nighttime black velvet.
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Publited Sat, 4 Sep 2021 at 12:23:03 +0000