This is a story about camouflage, but forget mud-blob brown, mealy beige and somber green. Here scientists study mirror glitz and the paradoxical notion that there’s a shiny side to camo.
Mirrorlike surfaces have evolved in open-ocean fishes as well as in spiders, butterfly chrysalises and most branches of the vast diversity of beetles, says visual ecologist Amanda Franklin of the University of Melbourne. One popular idea proposes that these living mirrors might confound predators by reflecting water, leaves, twigs or whatever.
For a test of dry-land mirrors, Franklin and her colleagues turned to a showy group of about 40 species of scarab beetles, some with a natural gleam. In golds, bronzes, greens and blues, they climb into eucalyptus trees to flirt and mate during their native Australia’s high summer in December. “People love Christmas beetles,” Franklin says.
To see if good reflection gives protection, Franklin set out to create nubs of clay roughly the shape of two greenish Christmas beetles, one with a mirror finish and one matte like their real-life counterparts, Anoplognathus parvulus (shiny) and A. prasinus (dull).
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Creating a “brushed-metal” look was easy, but she needed fake beetles with a full muscle car metal shine. Also she needed something fast to make. “If you have to sand it all day, you’re not going to be able to make a thousand,” Franklin says.
But prototype after prototype failed to shine. After about six weeks of frustration, “we probably had hundreds in the throw-out bin.” Working with a specialist in a hobby shop where her father for years bought supplies for making model World War II planes finally cracked the mirror mystery.
The trick to beetle-grade reflectivity turned out to be finding just the right super-smooth resin to coat the models before spray-painting. Then just a bit of sanding the shiny models approximated the relative difference between the mirror species and its drabber relative.