Unraveling the Development and Evolution of Transparency in Butterflies


How does an animal become invisible? Enter the paradox of the glasswing butterfly. As the name implies, these butterflies have transparent parts of their wings, engendering a common notion that they are “invisible” to avoid predators. However, these butterflies can also have striking orange and iridescent patterns on their wings. Numerous other species are known to mimic the glasswing butterfly’s wing patterns, highlighting the fact that these butterflies are in fact toxic, as they sequester noxious chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Their bright colors serve as a warning signal to would-be predators such as birds.

To investigate the development of transparent species endemic to the Neotropics (the tropical terrestrial ecoregions of the Americas and the South American temperate zone), it was critical to obtain living specimens at various life stages. Furthermore, experiments in developmental biology often require access to tissue at precisely known time-points. With the support of a Tinker Foundation and CLAS-funded research grant, I turned my sights to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) located in Gamboa, Panama. 

Aaron Pomerantz
Publication date: 
January 21, 2019
Publication type: 
Blog Entry