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“Design of Life” Evidence Continues Pouring Forth: Butterflies


With the introduction of Illustra’s Design of Life Collection, fans of the films can now get all three nature documentaries in a discount package to share. The films, of course, could never hope to completely cover the subjects of butterflies, birds, and marine life in a single hour each, but they provide enough evidence to challenge scientific materialism and make a convincing case for design in three separate realms of life. See the trailer here:

One hopes the life stories will stimulate viewers to continue learning about the animals featured in each documentary. To assist with that ongoing education, we offer examples of the evidence for intelligent design that continues to pour forth from meadows, skies, and seas.

Butterflies, for one, have been in the news recently, partially for the way they display amazing design. The film Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies showed electron micrographs of scales on a butterfly wing that look like overlapping roof shingles. But even at that magnified scale, there’s more design than meets the eye. German and Australian researchers publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences were astonished by what they saw in the scales of a Green Hairstreak butterfly. This small, bright green flyer, found from England to Siberia, has the ability to build 3-D microstructures with left- and right-handed curls, called gyroids, even though the chitin protein only has left-handed amino acids. Could research into the mechanism inspire something beautiful in manufacturing?

Arthropod biophotonic nanostructures provide a plethora of complex geometries. Although the variety of geometric forms observed reflects those found in amphiphilic self-assembly, the biological formation principles are more complex. This paper addresses the chiral single gyroid in the Green Hairstreak butterfly Callophrys rubi, robustly showing that the formation process produces both the left- and right-handed enantiomers but with distinctly different likelihood. An interpretation excludes the molecular chirality of chitin as the determining feature of the enantiomeric type, emphasizing the need to identify other chirality-specific factors within the membrane-based biological formation model. These findings contribute to an understanding of nature’s ability to control secondary features of the structure formation, such as enantiomeric type and crystallographic texture, informing bioinspired self-assembly strategies. [Emphasis added.]

What this means is that inside the chrysalis, there’s more going on than simple self-assembly of structural units. Something controls the way they are organized as they grow patterns on the wings, perhaps for some “photonic purpose” (e.g., reflecting or intensifying light). “More importantly, they show the level of control that morphogenesis exerts over secondary features of biological nanostructures, such as chirality or crystallographic texture, providing inspiration for biomimetic replication strategies for synthetic self-assembly mechanisms.” Design breeds design!

Speaking of inspiration, a while back we described one species, the Morpho butterfly, that has inspired multiple technologies. This brilliant blue flyer is in the news again, this time in Nature Communications. You can tell who the winner is from the title of the paper: “Towards outperforming conventional sensor arrays with fabricated individual photonic vapour sensors inspired by Morpho butterflies.” Note the number of times the word design is used in the Abstract — four mentions in one paragraph.

Here we show individual nanofabricated sensors that not only selectively detect separate vapours in pristine conditions but also quantify these vapours in mixtures, and when blended with a variable moisture background. Our sensor design is inspired by the iridescent nanostructure and gradient surface chemistry of Morpho butterflies and involves physical and chemical design criteria. The physical design involves optical interference and diffraction on the fabricated periodic nanostructures and uses optical loss in the nanostructure to enhance the spectral diversity of reflectance. The chemical design uses spatially controlled nanostructure functionalization. Thus, while quantitation of analytes in the presence of variable backgrounds is challenging for most sensor arrays, we achieve this goal using individual multivariable sensors. These colorimetric sensors can be tuned for numerous vapour sensing scenarios in confined areas or as individual nodes for distributed monitoring.

The butterfly design outperforms conventional sensor arrays. But just because butterflies have wonderful design doesn’t mean they don’t face trouble. Monarch butterflies are getting hit with a one-two punch. Their habitat continues to shrink in Mexico, while the milkweed they depend on is getting depleted as American farmers spray pesticides indiscriminately outside their crop boundaries. PhysOrg reported recently that deforestation in Mexico’s Monarch reserve has more than tripled, “reversing several years of steady improvements.” If you want to help save these heroes of Metamorphosis, there are things you can do, such as planting milkweed in your backyard, Dan Ashe says in National Geographic. You can also join the ranks of volunteers who collect data on butterfly sightings to help scientists track their numbers. Science Magazine News talks about the importance of good statistics to understand the seriousness of the Monarchs’ plight. The University of Michigan, meanwhile, is studying the effects of carbon dioxide on Monarchs if atmospheric concentrations continue to rise.

The Arctic fritillary, a species from Greenland, is also in trouble. Danish biologists from Aarhus University are concerned that these bright orange butterflies with black bars on their wings are getting smaller as their habitat warms due to climate change. Setting aside the contentious question of anthropogenic warming, pause for a moment and ask yourself, How can a tiny butterfly survive in the Arctic? These little insects with paper-thin wings have are not warm-blooded and have no parkas, yet they feel right at home in the cold of northeastern Greenland! That sounds like a pretty good design story right there.

Image: Monarch butterfly, courtesy of Illustra Media.

David Coppedge

David Coppedge is a freelance science reporter in Southern California. He has been a board member of Illustra Media since its founding and serves as their science consultant. He worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 14 years, on the Cassini mission to Saturn, until he was ousted in 2011 for sharing material on intelligent design, a discriminatory action that led to a nationally publicized court trial in 2012. Discovery Institute supported his case, but a lone judge ruled against him without explanation. A nature photographer, outdoorsman, and musician, David holds B.S. degrees in science education and in physics and gives presentations on ID and other scientific subjects.



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