As part of the Wild Art 2021 May Challenge, put on by Zoe Keller, I illustrated two pieces focusing on the theme, “Wonder”. Each month, I am going to focus on two pieces – one highlighting flora, the other highlighting fauna. There is so much about the natural world that I wonder about, marvel at, and find fascinating, but one thing that gets me every time (especially since I am obsessed with all things color!) is that very few things that appear as blue to our eyes actually are blue! From red pigments that present themselves differently due to pH changes, to thin layers of cells to bounce light differently, blue is a deceiving color, and therefore rarely seen (as compared to the other colors) in nature.

Let’s start with this vibrant fish, colored in what I have dubbed, “The Color of Epilepsy”.

Incredibly enough, this fish, known by many names such as Mandarin Dragonet, Psychedelic Mandarinfish, and Mandarin Goby, has such a succinct scientific name, that really shows just how amazing people think this fish is! They are the Synchiropus splendidus. Splendid indeed! Many people are absolutely intrigued with the coloration and swimming style of this animal. It beats its fins rather rapidly as it goes along, reminding some people of an underwater hummingbird! Similarly to the hummingbird, this fish is also incredibly colorful.

For many years, it was believed that if an animal presented itself as blue, like a Blue Jay, it was deceiving, and really the color was from an iridescence. A flat layer of cells coating the surface causes light to bounce very straight and directly, instead of scattering in every which way along the edges of rounded cells. The light waves of the straight reflected light is shorter, therefore appearing blue (click here to learn more about blue in the natural world and here for why we see the sky in certain colors!). In 1995, a study was done with the Mandarin Goby, and lo and behold! A true blue organelle in the cells was discovered! Chromatophores, a specialized cell that contains colored pigments, in animals are often Melanophores (brownish colors), Leucophores (whitish colors), and Xanthophores (yellowish colors). In this fish, though, a different chromatophore was seen, dubbed a cyanophore! This is novel, even to this day!

Again, most “blue” things in nature aren’t actually blue! Remember that Blue Jay mentioned earlier? Most things that don’t use the red-based pigment, Delphinidin, to look blue, actually use iridescence to appear blue.

This Peacock Selaginella is no exception to that rule. One way to test to see if something is pigment colored or “light” colors, is to submerge the plant in water. If the plant continues to appear blue, then it’s colored by pigments, often the Delphinidin (what makes Delphiniums look so blue). If it immediately looses the blue color when submerged, you know that it is using iridescence to look blue and with the water overtop, the light now scatters differently, making the plant look a different color. These iridescent blue plants often grow in shady environments, where normal photosynthesis using chlorophyll pigments can be difficult.

Whenever I see blue in nature, I am always blown away by how plants and animals have adapted over time and have such incredible methods and reasons for displaying whatever color they are!

Stay tuned next month to learn more about how both plants and animals have survived and adapted to aquatic habitats with the “Waters” theme!

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