Quirks & Quarks

The peacock makes eye contact with its tail

The mating displays of the spectacular feathers involve some complicated mechanics, so the feathers shake and shimmer while the eye-spots focus attention

The peacock shakes its feathers but somehow keeps eye-spots still.

The eyes have it. (Roslyn Dakin)
The peacock uses its elaborate fan of feathers, complete with as many as 130 colourful eyespots, as part of its courtship ritual. But exactly what the peahen sees is the subject of a new study by Professor Suzanne Amador Kane from the Physics Department at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

In an experiment using high-speed video analysis, she and her colleagues determined that the peacock vibrates those feathers at a speed of 25 times per second, yet the eyespots remain stationary. Further analysis revealed the eyespot barbs are locked together with microhooks.

This gives each eyespot greater density, which keeps it in place, as the loose barbs around it shimmer in response to the vibrating background. The peahen is attracted by the mesmerizing quality of this display. 

Related Links

- Paper in PLoS One
- Haverford College release
- Queen's University release
New York Times story
Discover magazine story