An ode to the fabulous feather on The Current

humming-bird.jpgNature is full of examples of clever evolutionary engineering, from the surprising strength of eggshells to the biological sonar in bats. But biologist Thor Hanson believes that one natural wonder may fly higher than the rest -- the feather.

"There are many things in nature that are beautifully adapted to a single purpose. Take for example the human eye and the wonder of sight and vision," Hanson said during a recent interview with The Current. "But there are very few things in nature that are well adapted to many purposes, and the feather is incredible in that it is beautifully adapted, not only for flight, but for insulation and for beautifully coloured displays and also for waterproofing to birds...So it's miraculous to me the great variety of uses in nature."

Hanson became interested in feathers from an evolutionary point of view after wondering why some types of vulture are bald. He learned that since vultures are scavengers and stick their heads deep into the carcasses of animals to feed, it's to their benefit to have featherless faces that won't get as dirty.

This led Hanson to research not only how feathers serve different species of birds, but also how they are used by humans for practical and aesthetic purposes. From arrows to quill pens, many of our devices have relied on the versatility of the feather. You can read more about Hanson's findings in his new book Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.


by Thor Hanson

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"In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us?Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told."

Read more at Basic Books.

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