New exhibit looks at structural colouration in nature, and how it can be applied to human technologies

The Living Colours exhibit at the University of Alberta's Augustana Campus Library allows you to discover structural colour, use microscopes to experience how it works in nature and learn about how the phenomena can be used practically in science, art and design.

Tia Lalani - 30 January 2020

UAlberta researcher Carlos Fiorentino created StrC, an online database system to highlight examples of structural colour to the end of developing opportunities in design, art and science. You can take a look at the database and some microscopic examples of structural colouration at the Augustana Library's Living Colours Exhibit, on now until March 30, 2020.

Structural colouration is a phenomena in nature in which colour is obtained through microscopically structured surfaces of living organisms and their connection with the available light. It can be found in tens of thousands of different species. Bacteria, algae, fungi, plants, and animals all have species with structural colouration.

As research into using nature's models to solve human problems and designing better, more sustainable technologies is gaining more attention, structural colour phenomena are finding their place in our society.

Carlos Fiorentino, a researcher at UAlberta and co-creator of the Living Colours exhibit at the Augustana Campus Library explains, "Even though its implementation is still in the early stages, we can already see the ways structural colouration will be developing for technology." These opportunities include a wide range such as screen display technologies, printing and coloring industries, signalling and communications and photonic computing.

The exhibition presents examples of structural colour in nature and highlights examples and ideas on how the knowledge of this phenomena could be organized in an online database system, called StC. After developing a basic understanding of structural colour and the science behind it, visitors will have a chance to see how structural colour appears in some species both with the naked eye and under the microscope.

In an exciting partnership between PhD student and researcher, Fiorentino and professor Tomislav Terzin from Augustana's Department of Science will present part of the robust Augustana Tropical Insects Research Studio entomology collection.

There will be two stereo microscope stations, "which will allow visitors to have a first-hand experience with the complexity and beauty of structural colours on micro-scale. While the beauty of human art fades when observed under the microscope, the beauty of the natural world is even more astonishing," says professor Terzin.

The urania sloanus moth was last spotted alive in 1895, and was acquired by Augustana professor Tomislav Terzin in 2012. Photo courtesy of Tomislav Terzin.

At the exhibition, visitors will have a chance to see "eight drawers with stunning examples of structurally coloured insects, including blue Morpho butterflies, Chrysina 'golden' and 'silver' beetles, but also many other examples from around the world. Besides insects, there will be some examples of structural colours in sea shells, spiders and even minerals" adds professor Terzin.

Examples of structural colour in these species are stunning, but the jewel of the exhibition is a unique day-flying moth called the urania sloanus, an extinct species from Jamaica. Besides its beautiful structural colouration, this moth has an amazing story behind how it got to Augustana. The last time it was spotted alive was in 1895. In 2012, Professor Terzin found an opportunity to purchase this rare and unique specimen for Augustana's collection. He shared this exciting discovery with his colleagues immediately, without intention to buy it. Faculty and staff responded spontaneously by creating a crowdfunding campaign and $6000 was donated in less than 24 hours to purchase the specimen for the collection.

As you can see, this exhibit is an exciting combination of compelling ideas from researchers and Augustana campus special collections. Stop by and see it for yourself (under the microscopes!).

The Living Colours Exhibit will run at the Augustana Campus Library from January 30 to March 27, 2020.

Carlos Fiorentino: As part of his PhD thesis, Fiorentino started the online tool called StrC, whose goal is to make the knowledge of structural colour easily available. One of the ideas is to accelerate its practical usage by bridging the communication gap between scientific language rooted in biology and physics and its understanding by those who would like to use, develop and implement that knowledge in new ways, such as designers and engineers.

A sagra sp. beetle as part of Augustana professor Tomislav Terzin's vast entomology collection. Photo courtesy of Tom Terzin.

StC Database: According to Fiorentino, "The StrC is currently at the prototype stage. Future stages of the project involve further development of the interface with all sections and widgets fully developed and functional. It also involves accessing important repositories of scientific information on structural colour, which will complete the current StrC database. The StrC will be used as a template to develop other similar rich-prospect browsing taxonomies, and explored as a research tool for several courses at the University of Alberta during 2020."

Tomislav Terzin: For more than 10 years, professor Terzin has been involved in research on invertebrate colour patterns. The interdisciplinary aspect of his research has involved three graduate students from the Human Ecology department of the University of Alberta, as colours of insect specimens were used as an inspirational source in textile design. His most recent collaboration is with Fiorentino with whom he has co-authored this exhibition. "Carlos has interest in studying structural colours and my research collection was extensively used in his PhD work," says professor Terzin.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alberta Libraries News site on January 28, 2020.