Had a great extended dinner meeting with a friend and collaborator this evening to get a project rolling on the micromechanics of feathers. One of the key features will be sorting out how pigments and structural colors affect the mechanical properties of feathers. It's well documented that some pigments (melanins, particularly) strengthen feathers - but we don't know yet how much, by exactly what mechanism, and the relative effects on performance. Other pigments probably also have an impact, but that's even more mysterious.
Why do we care how feathers work? Well, as a biologist with a strong interest in the evolution of flight in birds, I obviously have a personal stake in knowing more about feather mechanics. But here are some traits of feathers that might make them interesting models for those with a more applied interest:
- Feathers have a high strength to mass ratio (particularly with regards to bending)
- Feathers are abrasion resistant
- Feathers are good thermal insulators
- Feathers are fast to replace - they are manufactured quickly with precision
- Feathers absorb impacts well
- Feathers are water resistant
- Feathers have notable aerodynamic properties (duh)
That's a rather solid set of attributes for a single biological structure. With growing interest in biomaterials, we expect that feathers might hold some very intriguing clues about efficient material use and pigment effects. Here's hoping!