Check out the riflebird’s light-eating, ultra black feathers

Birds of paradise have evolved the blackest feathers possible to attract mates

It turns out the blackbird isn’t even the blackest bird. Time for a name change, ornithologists.

In the eastern regions of Oceania, the birds-of-paradise — especially those of the Ptiloris genus — have feathers that challenge even the blackest artificial substance in the world, known as Vantablack, which absorbs 99.965 percent of light. If you shine a laser on Vantablack, the red dot actually disappears.

Evolutionary biologists at Harvard University published a study on January 9 in Nature Communications, in which they explain how the superblack feathers of the birds-of-paradise can absorb up to 99.95 percent of light.

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The mesmerisingly deep black of the riflebird is produced by the microscopic structure of its feathers. Other birds’ feathers have lots of tiny filaments that are flat and well-organised, whereas the Ptiloris birds-of-paradise have filaments that are tightly packed and bend upward, with deep gaps between them.

As light hits the feather, it bounces around these gaps, getting lost in the dark forest as it is gradually absorbed (and transferred into other kinds of energy). The scientists speculate that the superblack feathers accentuate the colourful patches on the bird, making them look even brighter in order to impress females during courtship. I repeat, they speculate.

The researchers created a demonstration with the super-black feathers. In the bottom two images, you can see two feathers, both of which have been sprinkled with gold dust. The left one is from a bird of average blackness—and it looks as golden as its surroundings. The right one comes from a paradise riflebird—one of the 42 species of bird-of-paradise. It’s also covered in gold dust, yet still looks black. The top two images show a microscopic image of the two different feathers, showing how the gold can settle within the riflebird’s grooves, where all of the glitter gets lost.

Similar to Vantablack objects, the light absorption rate of their feathers are enough to make them look like flat, 2D objects with the right angle.

And there’s nothing the male riflebird knows better than angles:


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A. Jama

Jama is a researcher in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a focus on metabolism and cancer. You can find him on twitter discussing a broad range of topics, from US politics to Game of Thrones. He also has the best memes.

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