Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Blue animals

George Carlin had this to say about blue food:

"I often wonder why there's no blue food. Every other color in well represented in the food kingdom. And don't bother me with blueberries; they're purple. The same is true with blue corn and blue potatoes. They're purple. Blue cheese? Nice try. It's actually white cheese with blue mold. Occasionally, you might run across some blue Jell-o in a cafeteria. Don't eat it. It wasn't supposed to be blue. Something went wrong."

I'm not going to argue with George Carlin about blue food, but I will state my opinion. I think blueberries are blue. I mean, are they called purple-berries? And blue potatoes? Gosh darn it... I made mashed potatoes with them, and put them in the fridge over night. I'll be darned if those puppies aren't thermochroic! They change color with temperature.

Comparison of hot and cold mashed blue potatoes

But, this blog post is not about mashed potatoes, thermochromism, or even about food. It is about animals, and in particular, blue animals.

These animals are not blue

Just to set the record straight, the following animals are not blue: blue whale, blue heeler, Latvian blue cow, Babe the Blue Ox, Russian blue cat, Blue Bunny ice cream. Some day, I'm going to write a blog post about the myriad of animals and other things that have been assigned the wrong color name, starting with the Wisconsin state bird, the robin red breast. This tirade will be read by the person in charge of assigning color names to animals and stuff, and some changes are gonna be made. Then we'll see just what a powerful force that my blog can be for the eradication of evil in the universe.

What Rayleigh does to light

My daughters asked me why the sky is blue. I gave them the obvious answer: "It's Rayleigh scattering." They looked at me with their cute little blue eyes and said "oh". Neither one of them have gotten a PhD in physics. At least not yet. Go figger. Maybe if I explained the difference between Rayleigh scattering, Mie scattering, and the Tyndall effect, things would have turned out differently?

Rayleigh scattering is a "pick on someone your own size" kinda thing. When photons are in the right range of wavelength compared to the size of the tiny particles (in this case) in the air, the particles and photons interact much like two dancers coming together in a spin and then suddenly letting go. The cute little photons could head off in any direction. In a cloudless sky, photons near the blue end (shorter wavelength) are more likely to get caught up in this dance, so they are more likely to change direction. Rather than come down on you straight from the sun, they appear to come from somewhere else first.

Light coming from the sun is white. The blue end gets scattered so as to make the sky appear blue. The green light gets scattered a bit too, but the red light does not scatter much. The scattered light shows up as "blue" (or more properly, as cyan, since there is green mixed in as well) and the sun takes on a yellow cast for lack of the blues.

This effect is not limited to the sky. Animals can take advantage of this. By adding tiny particles in some part of their anatomy, they can adorn themselves with brilliant blue shades. As we can see below, a light blue accent can be used to render the male of the species irresistible to the female.

Old Blue Eyes and Old Blue Face

Note: I have avoided showing a picture of the lesula, a primate that was recently discovered in the Congo. The male of this species has that mandrill thing going on, but he adorns his butt. That's just gross. 

The feathers of blue birds, by and large, are also colored by the scattering of light. In the case of blue jays and blue tits, the feathers are constructed with tiny air pockets that scatter light.

Cute little tit from a blue movie


Rayleigh scattering is one mechanism by which color can be imparted to an object. Another spectacular way that color arises is through the action of interference. Since light can be viewed as a wave, reflecting rays of light can combine constructively and destructively so that some wavelengths of light head in other directions than others.

Insects are masters of this coloration technique, as can be seen from the images below. [1]
Clockwise from top-left, bluebottle fly, blue swallowtail butterfly, blue darner, and jewel bugs [2]

If you brush your finger along the wing of a butterfly, you will collect what looks like a fine dust. Each little piece of dust is actually a tiny scale. Each of these scales is shaped much like a Ruffles potato chip [3]. Below is a scanning electron microscope image of a few scales from the wing of a butterfly. The ridges on the scales are the source of the iridescence that we see in many insects.

Convergent evolution?

Years ago, when I was writing software for digital scanning electron microscope, I stuffed a moth in the microscope and started looking at the beautiful scales. I found that this dull colored moth had ridges just like those on a butterfly scale, only the ridges were closer together. If we could see ultraviolet light, we would see a gorgeous luster when we look at the drab moth.

Before I move on to the next source of blue coloring in animals, I have a plethora of words for the logophiles who frequent my blog: The words pearlescent and nacreous are synonyms of iridescent. The former comes from the color of a pearl, and the latter comes from the color of nacre, which is the stuff that the inside of sea shells are made of. To be perfectly correct then, one would refer to a pearl as being pearlescent, and mother-of-pearl as being nacreous. One should always ask before complimenting a woman on her necklace.

Opalescent is another synonym which comes, of course, from the gemstone opal. Margaric is yet another word for the same effect. Margarine got its name from this word. The original margarine had an oily, pearlescent appearance. 

These words all fit under the umbrella of "goniochromic", which refers to an object where the color depends on the angle that you look at it. My advice - memorize a few of these words, and drop them randomly in sentences, like "I have been so nacreous since my margaric told me to eat less goniochromic foods." People will think you are brilliant.

The difference between boobies and tits

Rayleigh scattering and iridescence are two ways that physics has made our world more colorful. Neither of these get rid of light, they just direct it somewhere else. Pigments are a third way to make color. Pigments are chemicals that actually absorb light, and (generally speaking) do so preferentially. When they eat photons, they are selective about the wavelength. Thus, light reflected from a pigmented surface will usually be a different color than the incident light.

Blue-footed boobies get their blue color from pigments and not from scattering or iridescence. The pigment in booby feet is a carotenoid that they derive from their diet [4]. Rather than using these as anti-oxidants (to prevent accidents), boobies divert these carotenoids to their feet to enhance their sex life. 

Blue-footed booby doing the "let's make little boobies" dance

To summarize the important point here, tits are blue because of scattering. Boobies are blue because of the pigments that they eat.

But, what about the yellow underbelly of the tit? This part of their body gets its color from the yellow-green caterpillars that it eats. But, this article is about blue, and not yellow, so I won't talk anymore about the fascinating biochemistry that makes this species of caterpiggle yellow-green.

Blue pigments in vertebrates

Hazel Rossotti, in her entertaining book "Colour - Why the World Isn't Grey", said that "... no blue pigment has been found in any vertebrate..." That's a strong statement, since I had a dog that liked to eat crayons. I frequently found blue pigments in his poo. In Kurt Nassau's also entertaining book "The Physics and Chemistry of Color - The Fifteen causes of Color", the statement is softened just a bit. "Almost all animal blues ... are derived from scattering." [5]

There are certainly blue pigments in invertebrates. Mollusks and arthropods, for example, are true blue bloods. The color of their blood comes from hemocyanin, which is similar to our own hemoglobin, only it is based on copper rather than iron. What about vertebrates?

One vertebrate that proudly displays a variety of colors is the chameleon. One would think there are pigments involved in it's chromatic transmogrification, and one would be correct. There are three layers of skin that allow the chameleon to change color. The uppermost layer contains yellow and red pigments. The bottom-most layer also has a pigment, the ubiquitous melanin. It is the middle layer that is responsible for a chameleon getting the blues, through the action of guanine. But guanine is not a pigment. It is a compound with a relatively high index of refraction, which causes preferential scattering of blue light.

The master of chromatic transmogrification

There are some rare vertebrates that disprove Rossotti's claim, however. I have dug up information on two vertebrates with cyanophores: the poison dart frog and the mandarin fish.

Examples of blue pigmented vertebrates

Future research

All successful research papers must end with a statement of the form "further research is clearly warranted". This, of course, is a euphemism for "I want to keep my job." Since I want to keep my high-paying job as the world's most entertaining applied mathematician / color scientist blogger, I will end with two examples of vertebrates where the jury is still out on whether the blue coloration is mediated by the action of pigments.

The first example is an animal that has received precious little research dollars. It is unfortunate that, in today's fiscal climate, this trend is likely to continue. The Avatar, however, might stand a chance at garnering some resources.
Why is this Smurf so happy when he is so blue?

And then there's Batman. No one really knows why he is blue. Pigment? Rayleigh scattering? Interference? Or is it just the blues of being a lonely superhero? But the video below shows that he definitely has a dark side.

I hope this blog post has helped chase away the winter blues.

[1] I have often had arguments with otherwise intelligent people who claim that insects are not animals. It would appear that their definition of animal includes only mammals, but does not include fish and birds and frogs and earthworms and butterflies and nematodes and squid and clams with a light cream sauce served on a bed of spinach linguine. I quote from Wikipedia's entry "Animal": "Animals are divided into various sub-groups, including birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects."

[2] This attractive set of green and blue jewel bugs is available from the Home Shopping Network. Disclaimers: These jewel bugs, attractive as they are, are not actual jewels. They are also not bugs, meaning, members of the order hemiptera. Instead, these are one of the 640,000 species of beetles (order coleoptera). Coleopterates encompass 80% of all living species of the class insecta.

[3] Despite the obvious similarity, I find the scales on a butterfly's wing to be significantly less tasty than potato chips. That, of course, is just my own preference.

[4] Flamingos, salmon, and shrimp similarly get their coloring from their diet. A flamingo in captivity will lose its orange color if not fed its normal diet of shrimp, or the appropriate carotenoids like canthaxanthin. This applies to farm raised salmon as well.

[5] These two books are both delightful. Rossotti's book is an easy read with lots of factoids that are accessible to anyone who paid attention in high school science class. Nassau's book is more technical (and expensive), but it is still written with an entertaining style.


  1. Now you need to tie together your Pandora blog and this one to discuss R&B, Blues, Blues Jazz, Blues Brothers and the Brit band "Blue". Hopefully this won't blue us away!

  2. There was a great set of insect pictures posted to the Color Objects website just before I posted this. Here is a link

  3. Iridescently brilliant, John, as usual.

  4. Cassowaries? They are basically blue dino with feathers!