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Butterflies up close

A researcher finds art in science

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  • Story by Randy Mertens
  • Photos by Peter Sutovsky
  • Published: Jan. 28, 2011
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In his reproductive physiology work in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' Division of Animal Sciences, associate professor Peter Sutovsky spends much time peering through an epifluorescence microscope researching fertilization. In this world he can adjust the specific wavelength of light illuminating sperm and egg specimens to show technical details that otherwise could not be observed.

A scientist who holds seven patents and collaborates with colleagues across the world, Sutovsky occasionally pauses to wonder at the artistry of his microscopic world. He sometimes captures particularly beautiful images to share with friends and co-workers. 

Recently, to satisfy his curiosity and learn more about his microscope, the amateur entomologist took a look at the wing of a Missouri Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. Magnified about 75 times, the already beautiful wing became a new world of shapes, colors and textures as Sutovsky tried differing exposures and oblique illumination modes. In a few minutes he created a gallery showing the magnificence and complexity of the creatures.

Butterfly wings

Reproductive physiology researcher and amateur entomologist Peter Sutovsky uses his free time behind the microscope to capture magnified images of Missouri Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly wings.

Butterflies, Sutovsky observed, have scale-covered wings. These scales are pigmented with melanins that color them black and brown. Blues, greens, reds and iridescence are created not by pigments but by the microstructure of the scales, causing them to fluoresce when exposed to filtered excitation light.

Sutovsky’s images also catch the two membranes that are nourished by tubular veins. The veins function in oxygen exchange, a form of breathing. The front and back of the wings usually have different patterns.

“Someone said that God must have an inordinate fondness for insects because he created so many of them,” Sutovsky says, noting that more than 160,000 species of butterflies and moths have been identified and named so far. “The ancient Greeks believed butterflies were the symbol of souls' immortality, and famed author George Sand once wrote that butterflies are the ‘flowers that blew away one sunny day, when nature was at her most inventive and most fertile.’ I feel very fortunate to be afforded an even closer look at their beauty through the eye of a microscope.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012