Biology Faculty Research

Structural Color and Its Interaction with Other Color-Producing Elements: Perspectives from Spiders

Bor Kai Hsiung, University of Akron Main Campus
Todd A. Blackledge, University of Akron
Matthew D. Shawkey, University of Akron


Structural color is produced when nanostructures called schemochromes alter light reflected from a surface through different optic principles, in contrast with other types of colors that are produced when pigments selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light. Research on biogenic photonic nanostructures has focused primarily on bird feathers, butterfly wings and beetle elytra, ignoring other diverse groups such as spiders. We argue that spiders are a good model system to study the functions and evolution of colors in nature for the following reasons. First, these colors clearly function in spiders such as the tarantulas outside of sexual selection, which is likely the dominant driver of the evolution of structural colors in birds and butterflies. Second, within more than 44,000 currently known spider species, colors are used in every possible way based on the same sets of relatively simple materials. Using spiders, we can study how colors evolve to serve different functions under a variety of combinations of driving forces, and how those colors are produced within a relatively simple system. Here, we first review the different color-producing materials and mechanisms (i.e., light absorbing, reflecting and emitting) in birds, butterflies and beetles, the interactions between these different elements, and the functions of colors in different organisms. We then summarize the current state of knowledge of spider colors and compare it with that of birds and insects. We then raise questions including: 1. Could spiders use fluorescence as a mechanism to protect themselves from UV radiation, if they do not have the biosynthetic pathways to produce melanins? 2. What functions could color serve for nearly blind tarantulas? 3. Why are only multilayer nanostructures (thus far) found in spiders, while birds and butterflies use many diverse nanostructures? And, does this limit the diversity of structural colors found in spiders? Answering any of these questions in the future will bring spiders to the forefront of the study of structural colors in nature.