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Formed at scales too tiny for us to perceive and with astonishing complexity, the true structure and beauty of insects remains mostly hidden. Their intricate shapes, colours and microsculpture are dizzying in their variety, but it takes the power of an optical microscope or camera lens to experience insects at their own scale.
At high magnification the surface of even the plainest looking beetle or fly is completely transformed as details of their microsculpture become visible: ridges, pits or engraved meshes all combine at different spatial scales in a breath-taking intricacy. It is thought that these microscopic structures alter the properties of the insect’s surface in different ways, reflecting sunlight, shedding water, or trapping air.
Alongside these elements are minute hairs adapted for many purposes. They can help insects grip smooth surfaces, carry pollen, or detect movements in the air, to name but a few. The shape of these hairs is sometimes modified into flattened scales – structures so small they appear like dust to the naked eye. In some insects, such as butterflies and beetles, these scales scatter and reflect light, creating some of the most vibrant and intense colours seen in nature.
The evolutionary process of natural selection should account for all this wonderful diversity of microstructures, but for many species their specific adaptive function is still unknown. By observing insects in the wild, studying museum collections, and developing new imaging techniques we will surely learn more about these fascinating creatures and close the gaps in our current understanding.
Dr James Hogan
Life Collections, Oxford University Museum of Natural History