Longwing butterflies, Heliconius sp., also called heliconians, are striking examples of diversity and mimicry in butterflies. Heliconians feature strongly colored patterns on their wings, arising from wing scales colored by pigments and/or nanostructures, which serve as an aposematic signal.
Here, we investigate the coloration mechanisms among several species of Heliconius by applying scanning electron microscopy, (micro)spectrophotometry, and imaging scatterometry. We identify seven kinds of colored scales within Heliconius whose coloration is derived from pigments, nanostructures or both. In yellow-, orange- and red-colored wing patches, both cover and ground scales contain wavelength-selective absorbing pigments, 3-OH-kynurenine, xanthommatin and/or dihydroxanthommatin. In blue wing patches, the cover scales are blue either due to interference of light in the thin-film lower lamina (e.g., H. doris) or in the multilayered lamellae in the scale ridges (so-called ridge reflectors, e.g., H. sara and H. erato); the underlying ground scales are black. In the white wing patches, both cover and ground scales are blue due to their thin-film lower lamina, but because they are stacked upon each other and at the wing substrate, a faint bluish to white color results. Lastly, green wing patches (H. doris) have cover scales with blue-reflecting thin films and short-wavelength absorbing 3-OH-kynurenine, together causing a green color.
The pigmentary and structural traits are discussed in relation to their phylogenetic distribution and the evolution of vision in this highly interesting clade of butterflies.