Winter is here and it makes me miss the vibrant colors of spring, summer, and fall. I personally LOVE yellow. I love Sunflowers, Coreopsis, Daisies, Goldfinches, and Blue-Ringed Octopus. I’m not super picky though. I just love color! I love Butterfly Weed, Zinnia, Hibiscus, Purple Beautyberry, Cuttlefish, Common Sea Dragons, Giraffes… the list can go on forever, but all of them have something in common – none are blue.
What about Blue Jays or certain tree frogs? They’re intensely blue. In the plant world, Bluets, Big Leaf Hydrangea, or Grape Hyacinth flowers are blue.
Or are they?
Short answer – it’s all a scam. The brain has been tricked into seeing blue – there are hardly any true blue pigments in the natural world.
Long answer – Animals and plants typically ingest pigments, or colors, from their food. Many birds, such as Cardinals, Robins, and Goldfinches eat foods that allow their body to process the pigments and have more vibrant plumage. For example, baby flamingos start out grey. Through their life, flamingos eat shrimp and algae that have a pigment called “Carotenoids” which allow them to turn a brilliant pink as they mature. This specific pigment is also in tree leaves and when Chlorophyll disappears, they get to show off.
We may see animals that look blue, such as Blue Jays, Blue Morpho Butterflies, or Poison Dart Frogs, but are they really blue? No. They are a dingy brown-gray color but have structures on them such as keratin and chitin on bird wings, prisms of butterfly scales, and iridophores on frog skin all shine and reflect colors that the brain interprets as blue. There are always exceptions to the rules, though, and some rare fish and fungi have developed a true blue pigment!
Other animals and plants have developed a color mixer that takes different pigments and minerals and blends them to give the appearance of blue. For example, when blending a type of Anthocyanin and Iron, tulips can seem blue. There are three types of anthocyanins – 1) Pelargonidin (orange-pinkish) 2) Cyanidin (reddish-purple) and 3) Delphinidin (violet-blue). This Delphinidin pigment when combined with the right minerals (which can raise or lower soil pH) will present itself as a blue color in flowers such as Delphiniums, Bluebells, Hydrangeas (think back to the soil pH impacting if they’re pink or blue), and Morning Glories.
Next time they bloom, look at all of those plants you thought were blue and study them! Many are actually varying shades of purple! Pick up that Blue Jay feather you found on the ground and hold it up to the sun. Suddenly it’ll look brown because you’re not looking at the reflective part!
Nature is amazing and it reminds us that not everything is as it first appears. Things in nature require a second, closer look and once you take the time to look deeper, you’ll find out how complicated, intricate, and beautiful the world really is!
Fascinated by plant and animal colors like I am? Add any of these photos to your collection!
Check out these links for more information about the color blue and how plants and animals have been able to trick us!