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Published: February 2011

Feather Evolution

Feathers Bird Fossil

Evolution of Feathers

The long curious extravagant evolution of feathers

By Carl Zimmer
Photograph by Robert Clark

Most of us will never get to see nature's greatest marvels in person. We won't get a glimpse of a colossal squid's eye, as big as a basketball. The closest we'll get to a narwhal's unicornlike tusk is a photograph. But there is one natural wonder that just about all of us can see, simply by stepping outside: dinosaurs using their feathers to fly.

Birds are so common, even in the most paved-over places on Earth, that it's easy to take for granted both their dinosaur heritage and the ingenious plumage that keeps them aloft. To withstand the force of the oncoming air, a flight feather is shaped asymmetrically, the leading edge thin and stiff, the trailing edge long and flexible. To generate lift, a bird has merely to tilt its wings, adjusting the flow of air below and above them.

Airplane wings exploit some of the same aerodynamic tricks. But a bird wing is vastly more sophisticated than anything composed of sheet metal and rivets. From a central feather shaft extends a series of slender barbs, each sprouting smaller barbules, like branches from a bough, lined with tiny hooks. When these grasp on to the hooklets of neighboring barbules, they create a structural network that's featherlight but remarkably strong. When a bird preens its feathers to clean them, the barbs effortlessly separate, then slip back into place.

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