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Why some birds of paradise have ultrablack feathers

Tilt in spiky microstructures generates the birds’ exceedingly dark coloring

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11:44am, January 9, 2018
Ptiloris paradiseus

BIRDS OF A FEATHER  The bird of paradise species Ptiloris paradiseus sports velvety, ultradark feathers next to its bright blue-green plumage. Microstructures in the black feathers, which help increase how much light is absorbed, are responsible for the extremely dark color.

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Some birds of paradise really know how to work their angles. Tilted, microscopic filaments in some of the showy birds’ black feathers make that plumage look much darker than traditional black feathers, researchers report online January 9 in Nature Communications.

Dakota McCoy, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, and colleagues measured how much light each type of black feather absorbs. Superblack feathers absorb up to 99.95 percent of light that shines directly on them, while traditional black feathers absorb up to 96.8 percent, the researchers found.

Using scanning electron microscopy and nano-CT scanning, the team observed that ultrablack feathers have ragged, spike-studded barbules that curve upward at a roughly 30-degree angle to the tip, creating an array of deep, curved cavities. Traditional black feathers are smoother and lack such detailed microstructures. These spikes and pits scatter light multiple times, allowing for more light absorption and darker plumage, the scientists say. Even when the researchers dusted the feathers with gold, the darkest ones still retained their blackness, while traditional black plumes looked gilded in SEM images.

Superblack patches probably evolved to “exaggerate the perceived brilliance of adjacent color patches” during mating displays, the researchers write.

Spiked and angled

In these scanning electron microscope images, microscopic differences in filaments in black feathers of three bird of paradise species and one close relative, the lesser melampitta (Melampitta lugubris), become clear. An ordinary black feather from M. lugubris, for example, does not have the spikes and is not angled as much as filaments in superblack feathers from the other species.

Citations

D. McCoy et al. Structural absorption by barbule microstructures of super black bird of paradise feathers. Nature Communications. Published online January 9, 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02088-w.

Further Reading

L. Hamers. Tiny ‘supraballs’ put a new spin on creating long-lasting color. Science News. Vol. 192, October 14, 2017, p. 32.

A. Yeager. New printer creates color by shaping nanoparticles. Science News Online, May 5, 2017.

E. Conover. Butterfly-inspired nanoparticles can sort lightScience News. Vol. 189, June 11, 2016, p. 32.

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