Feather colours and patterns

I have been writing (in my actual job, you know, the bit I do between posts) a fair bit about feathers of late and as with many posts on the Musings thought I would highlight what I hope is an oft overlooked* aspect of their biology. As mentioned on here before, feathers were potentially much more useful to early birds and theropod dinosaurs than as just providing insulation or flight surfaces and while ‘communication’ (in all its guises) is regularly brought up, feathers are quite interesting in a number of ways. The thing I wanted to highlight here is just how much variation you can get into even a single feather in terms of pattern and colours, let aslone when extended across an animal. While there are of course plenty of flamboyant reptiles and mammals (and the odd amphibian), you really can’t beat a bird for colour and patterns. Both of the feathers shown here are from a single peacock and while the ‘eye spot’ is almost iconic in biology as a signal, it is important to note just how many different colours make it up and the variation seen in the intensity and iridescence of the feather, not to mention the shift in structure (fine filaments, in places coming together so you get both large blocks of colour and in others lots of volume without much intensity).
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The other feather shows the details of banding and disruptive patterns but even here there are a large number of colours as well. I guess the short version of this is to make sure you take in the details of even soemthing you have seen hundreds of times and try to look for other ways of seeing it – peacocks have these amazing eye-spots, but how are they made, what goes into them, what else is there in terms of colour, pattern, structure and so on. I doubt many people would realise that even something as flamboyant as a male peacock has feathers that on any other animal would be called cryptic.
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*Overlooked not in the sense that people don’t know it, but they don’t necessarily think about it.

3 Responses to “Feather colours and patterns”


    • 2 David Hone 19/07/2009 at 5:24 pm

      That picture kinda fails to take into account the irridesence of the peacock’s plumes and of course the enormous signal that it gives out in UV. It does work well as a painting though.

  1. 3 Lars Dietz 14/07/2009 at 4:57 pm

    Abbott Thayer actually thought that all animal coloration patterns were adapted for camouflage and there was no such thing as warning colors in the animal kingdom, and he painted this picture to show this was true even of the peacock. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that one) wrote an article to refute Thayer’s view. There is an essay about this by Stephen Jay Gould, reprinted in Bully for Brontosaurus.


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