What makes a feather shine? A nanostructural basis for glossy black colours in feathers

Rafael Maia, Liliana D'Alba, Matthew D. Shawkey

Abstract

Colours in feathers are produced by pigments or by nanostructurally organized tissues that interact with light. One of the simplest nanostructures is a single layer of keratin overlying a linearly organized layer of melanosomes that create iridescent colours of feather barbules through thin-film interference. Recently, it has been hypothesized that glossy (i.e. high specular reflectance) black feathers may be evolutionarily intermediate between matte black and iridescent feathers, and thus have a smooth keratin layer that produces gloss, but not the layered organization of melanosomes needed for iridescence. However, the morphological bases of glossiness remain unknown. Here, we use a theoretical approach to generate predictions about morphological differences between matte and glossy feathers that we then empirically test. Thin-film models predicted that glossy spectra would result from a keratin layer 110–180 nm thick and a melanin layer greater than 115 nm thick. Transmission electron microscopy data show that nanostructure of glossy barbules falls well within that range, but that of matte barbules does not. Further, glossy barbules had a thinner and more regular keratin cortex, as well as a more continuous underlying melanin layer, than matte barbules. Thus, their quasi-ordered nanostructures are morphologically intermediate between matte black and iridescent feathers, and perceived gloss may be a form of weakly chromatic iridescence.

  • Received July 30, 2010.
  • Accepted November 12, 2010.
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