Nature’s miniature solar panels: the thermal properties of butterfly wing scales and their evolution

A close up image of the scales of a butterfly wing

Image by Blanca Huertas

The wings of butterflies are covered in thousands of scales that have evolved to serve a range of functions including aerodynamic efficiency, colour signaling, camouflage, hydrophobicity and thermoregulation. Fundamental to these functions is the nanostructural formationof the scales.

Background

The wings of butterflies are covered in thousands of scales that have evolved to serve a range of functions including aerodynamic efficiency, colour signaling, camouflage, hydrophobicity and thermoregulation.

We are seeking an enthusiastic student with interests in ecology and evolution to work on a project investigating the evolution of wing scale nanostructures and thermal adaptation in tropical Andean butterflies.

Butterflies are one of the best-studied insect groups with respect to thermal adaptation. While the importance of the wings for thermoregulation has been known for some time, only recently has the importance of the wing scale nanostructures begun to be appreciated.

Butterflies are also somewhat unusual in having large, scale-covered wings, which they use for thermoregulation, both to absorb solar radiation to warm up and to radiate heat away from the body to cool down. 

Fundamental to these functions is the nanostructural formation of the scales. Interest in organisms’ adaptation to their thermal environment has grown in recent years as we try to understand and predict how organisms will respond to climate change.

The project can be tailored to the interests of the student but would likely include working with museum collections of butterflies at the Natural History Museum (under the supervision of Dr Huertas), using cutting-edge techniques for measuring scale nanostructure (under the supervision of Dr Parnell) and computational analysis to investigate ecological correlates of wing scale nanostructure (under the supervision of Dr Thomas).

It could also involve fieldwork in South America to obtain further butterfly specimens, ecological dataand/ortest hypotheses about thermal adaptation. This project builds on recent work in Dr Nadeau’s research groupinvestigating the evolution, genetics and development of butterfly wing scale nanostructures and investigating thermal adaptation in tropical Andean butterflies.

The outcomes of this project could have applications in the design of nanomaterials to improve the thermal efficiency of man-made structures such solar panels.

Objectives

  • Measure and quantify wing scale nanostructure variation (using atomic force microscopy) of butterflyspecies found across the Andes, from low to high elevation and in a range of habitats.
  • Collect and collate data on species ranges and habitats
  • Determine ecological correlates of scale structure, such as light and thermal environment
  • Use experimental approaches to determine the thermal properties of scale structures and how they are used in thermoregulation

Novelty and timelines

Tropical insects are likely to face particular challenges with global warming as they are often living close to their thermal maximum and montane species are likely to be particularly vulnerable as these climates are disappearing.

Eligibility and how to apply

Read about eligibilty and how to apply on the PhD opportunities at Sheffield ACCE website.

The deadline for applications is 15 January 2021.

Apply for this project

Read about how to apply on the ACCE website.

Application deadline: 15 January 2021

Any questions?

The University of Sheffield

Lead supervisor: Dr Nicola Nadeau

Supervisors

The Natural History Museum

Dr Blanca Huertas

The University of Sheffield

Dr Gavin Thomas

Dr Andrew Parnell

References

E.V. Curran, S. Stankowski, C. Pardo-Diaz, C. Salazar, M. Linares, N.J. Nadeau (2020) Müllerian mimicry of a quantitative trait despite contrasting levels of genomic divergence and selection. Molecular Ecology 29:2016-2030.

Montejo-Kovacevich, S.H. Martin, J.I. Meier, C.N. Bacquet, M. Monllor, C.D. Jiggins, N.J. Nadeau. 2020 Microclimate buffering and thermal tolerance across elevations in a tropical butterfly. Journal of Experimental Biology 223:jeb220426

Montejo‐Kovacevich, J.E. Smith, J.I. Meier, C.N. Bacquet, E. Whiltshire‐Romero, N.J. Nadeau, C.D. Jiggins, 2019. Altitude and life-history shape the evolution of Heliconiuswings. Evolution73, 2436-2450.

J. Parnell, J.E. Bradford, E.V. Curran, A.L. Washington, G. Adams, M.N. Brien, S.L. Burg, C. Morochz, J.P.A. Fairclough, P. Vukusic, S.J. Martin, S. Doak, N.J. Nadeau, 2018. Wing scale ultrastructure underlying convergent and divergent iridescent colours in mimetic Heliconius butterflies. J. R. Soc. Interface 15: 20170948

ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

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