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Tarantulas' Blue Fuzz Due to Hair-Based Nanostructures, Not Pigments, Researchers Reveal

Dec 01, 2015 03:08 PM EST
Blue Tarantula
It turns out blue tarantulas get their dazzling color from hairy nanostructures, not pigments.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

Some tarantulas sport a striking blue hue instead of the usual brown or black, huge, hairy spider exterior. However, unlike many other colorful animals, the arachnids get their cobalt-colored fuzz from tiny, multilayered nanostructures in their hairs, rather than pigments, a recent study reveals.

After mapping tarantula coloration pixel by pixel, researchers from the University of Akron (UA) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, found many species of spiders have evolved independently, on at least eight separate occasions, to produce the same shade of blue. What's more, the blue is non-iridescent – meaning it doesn't change when viewed at different angles.

"There is strikingly little variety in the shade of blue produced by different species of tarantulas," Dimitri Deheyn, co-author of the study and a Scripps Oceanography researcher studying marine and terrestrial biomimicry, explained in a news release. "We see that different types of nanostructures evolved to produce the same 'blue' across distant branches of the tarantula family tree in a way that uniquely illustrates natural selection through convergent evolution."

Exactly why tarantulas have evolved their cobalt blue hairs remains a mystery. Unlike birds, butterflies and other animals that that possess vibrant colorations to attract mates, tarantulas have poor vision. This seems to suggest the arachnids have developed the trait for a different reason that remains a mystery. Nevertheless at least scientists such as Bor-Kai (Bill) Hsiung, a biomimicry fellow from UA, told The Atlantic that  "We definitely think it has to have some kind of visual function."  

Biomimicry is an approach to developing materials and structures modeled on biological processes. Basically, researchers seek to create sustainable solutions to human challenges by applying the natural adaptations of animals, plants, and microbes. Based on the recent study, scientists believe they can create pigment replacements that never fade and reduce glare which could be used to improve screens used for smartphones, televisions and other devices.

"Our inspiration is to learn about how nature evolves unique traits that we could mimic to benefit future technologies," Deheyn added in the university's release.  

The study was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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