Background: Ultrastructures in butterfly wing scales can take many shapes, resulting in the often striking coloration of many butterflies due to interference of light. The plethora of coloration mechanisms is dazzling, but often only single mechanisms are described for specific animals.
Results: We have here investigated the male Rajah Brooke's birdwing, Trogonoptera brookiana, a large butterfly from Malaysia, which is marked by striking, colorful wing patterns. The dorsal side is decorated with large, iridescent green patterning, while the ventral side of the wings is primarily brown-black with small white, blue and green patches on the hindwings. Dense arrays of red hairs, creating a distinct collar as well as contrasting areas ventrally around the thorax, enhance the butterfly's beauty. The remarkable coloration is realized by a diverse number of intricate and complicated nanostructures in the hairs as well as the wing scales. The red collar hairs contain a broad-band absorbing pigment as well as UV-reflecting multilayers resembling the photonic structures of Morpho butterflies; the white wing patches consist of scales with prominent thin film reflectors; the blue patches have scales with ridge multilayers and these scales also have centrally concentrated melanin. The green wing areas consist of strongly curved scales, which possess a uniquely arranged photonic structure consisting of multilayers and melanin baffles that produces highly directional reflections.
Conclusion: Rajah Brooke's birdwing employs a variety of structural and pigmentary coloration mechanisms to achieve its stunning optical appearance. The intriguing usage of order and disorder in related photonic structures in the butterfly wing scales may inspire novel optical materials as well as investigations into the development of these nanostructures in vivo.