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Feathers are one of the epidermal growths that form the distinctive outer covering, or plumage, on birds and some non-avian theropod dinosaurs. They are considered the most complex integumentary structures found in vertebrates, and indeed a premier example of a complex evolutionary novelty. They are among the characteristics that distinguish the extant Aves from other living groups. Feathers have also been noticed in those Theropoda which have been termed feathered dinosaurs. Although feathers cover most parts of the body of birds, they arise only from certain well-defined tracts on the skin. They aid in flight, thermal insulation, waterproofing, and coloration that helps in communication and protection.
Feathers are among the most complex integumentary appendages found in vertebrates and are formed in tiny follicles in the epidermis, or outer skin layer, that produce keratin proteins. The β-keratins in feathers, beaks and claws — and the claws, scales and shells of reptiles — are composed of protein strands hydrogen-bonded into β-pleated sheets, which are then further twisted and crosslinked by disulfide bridges into structures even tougher than the α-keratins of mammalian hair, horns and hoof. The exact signals that induce the growth of feathers on the skin are not known, but it has been found that the transcription factor cDermo-1 induces the growth of feathers on skin and scales on the leg.
There are two basic types of feather: vaned feathers which cover the exterior of the body, and down feathers which are underneath the vaned feathers. The pennaceous feathers are vaned feathers. Also called contour feathers, pennaceous feathers arise from tracts and cover the whole body. A third rarer type of feather, the filoplume, is hairlike and (if present in a bird) grows along the fluffy down feathers. In some passerines, filoplumes arise exposed beyond the contour feathers on the neck. The remiges, or flight feathers of the wing, and rectrices, the flight feathers of the tail are the most important feathers for flight. A typical vaned feather features a main shaft, called the rachis. Fused to the rachis are a series of branches, or barbs; the barbs themselves are also branched and form the barbules. These barbules have minute hooks called barbicels for cross-attachment. Down feathers are fluffy because they lack barbicels, so the barbules float free of each other, allowing the down to trap air and provide excellent thermal insulation. At the base of the feather, the rachis expands to form the hollow tubular calamus (or quill) which inserts into a follicle in the skin. The basal part of the calamus is without vanes. This part is embedded within the skin follicle and has an opening at the base (proximal umbilicus) and a small opening on the side (distal umbilicus).
Hatchling birds of some species have a special kind of natal down feathers (neossoptiles) which are pushed out when the normal feathers (teleoptiles) emerge.
Flight feathers are stiffened so as to work against the air in the downstroke but yield in other directions. It has been observed that the orientation pattern of β-keratin fibers in the feathers of flying birds differs from that in flightless birds: the fibers are better aligned in the middle of the feather and less aligned towards the tips.
Feathers insulate birds from water and cold temperatures. They may also be plucked to line the nest and provide insulation to the eggs and young. The individual feathers in the wings and tail play important roles in controlling flight. Some species have a crest of feathers on their heads. Although feathers are light, a bird's plumage weighs two or three times more than its skeleton, since many bones are hollow and contain air sacs. Color patterns serve as camouflage against predators for birds in their habitats, and serve as camouflage for predators looking for a meal. As with fish, the top and bottom colors may be different to provide camouflage during flight. Striking differences in feather patterns and colors are part of the sexual didimorphism of many bird species and are particularly important in selection of mating pairs. In some cases there are differences in the UV reflectivity of feathers across sexes even though no differences in color are noted in the visible range. The wing feathers of male Club-winged Manakins Machaeropterus deliciosus have special structures that are used to produce sounds by stridulation.
Some birds have a supply of powder down feathers which grow continuously, with small particles regularly breaking off from the ends of the barbules. These particles produce a powder that sifts through the feathers on the bird's body and acts as a waterproofing agent and a feather conditioner. Powder down has evolved independently in several taxa and can be found in down as well as in pennaceous feathers. They may be scattered in plumage as in the pigeons and parrots or in localized patches on the breast, belly, or flanks, as in herons and frogmouths. Herons use their bill to break the powder down feathers and to spread them, while cockatoos may use their head as a powder puff to apply the powder. Waterproofing can be lost by exposure to emulsifying agents due to human pollution. Feathers can then become waterlogged, causing the bird to sink. It is also very difficult to clean and rescue birds whose feathers have been fouled by oil spills. The feathers of cormorants soak up water and help to reduce buoyancy, thereby allowing the birds to swim submerged.
Bristles are stiff, tapering feathers with a large rachis but few barbs. Rictal bristles are found around the eyes and bill. They may serve a similar purpose to eyelashes and vibrissae in mammals. Although there is as yet no clear evidence, it has been suggested that rictal bristles have sensory functions and may help insectivorous birds to capture prey. In one study, Willow Flycatchers (Empidonax traillii) were found to catch insects equally well before and after removal of the rictal bristles.
Grebes are peculiar in their habit of ingesting their own feathers and feeding them to their young. Observations on their diet of fish and the frequency of feather eating suggest that ingesting feathers, particularly down from their flanks, aids in forming easily ejectable pellets.
Contour feathers are not uniformly distributed on the skin of the bird except in some groups such as the Penguins, ratites and screamers. In most birds the feathers grow from specific tracts of skin called pterylae; between the pterylae there are regions which are free of feathers called apterylae. Filoplumes and down may arise from the apterylae. The arrangement of these feather tracts, pterylosis or pterylography, varies across bird families and has been used in the past as a means for determining the evolutionary relationships of bird families.
The colors of feathers are produced by pigments, by microscopic structures that can refract, reflect, or scatter selected wavelengths of light, or by a combination of both.
Most feather pigments are melanins (brown and beige pheomelanins, black and grey eumelanins) and carotenoids (red, yellow, orange); other pigments occur only in certain taxa – the yellow to red psittacofulvins (found in some parrots) and the red turacin and green turacoverdin (porphyrin pigments found only in turacos).
Structural coloration is involved in the production of blue colors, iridescence, most ultraviolet reflectance and in the enhancement of pigmentary colors. Structural iridescence has been reported in fossil feathers dating back 40 million years. White feathers lack pigment and scatter light diffusely; albinism in birds is caused by defective pigment production, though structural coloration will not be affected (as can be seen, for example, in blue-and-white budgerigars).
The blues and bright greens of many parrots are produced by constructive interference of light reflecting from different layers of structures in feathers. In the case of green plumage, in addition to yellow, the specific feather structure involved is called by some the Dyck texture. Melanin is often involved in the absorption of light; in combination with a yellow pigment, it produces a dull olive-green.
In some birds, feather colors may be created, or altered, by secretions from the uropygial gland, also called the preen gland. The yellow bill colors of many hornbills are produced by such secretions. It has been suggested that there are other color differences that may be visible only in the ultraviolet region, but studies have failed to find evidence. The oil secretion from the uropygial gland may also have an inhibitory effect on feather bacteria.
A bird's feathers undergo wear and tear and are replaced periodically during the bird's life through molting. New feathers, known when developing as blood, or pin feathers, depending on the stage of growth, are formed through the same follicles from which the old ones were fledged. The presence of melanin in feathers increases their resistance to abrasion. One study notes that melanin based feathers were observed to degrade more quickly under bacterial action, even compared to unpigmented feathers from the same species, than those unpigmented or with carotenoid pigments. However, another study the same year compared the action of bacteria on pigmentations of two song sparrow species and observed that the darker pigmented feathers were more resistant; the authors cited other research also published in 2004 that stated increased melanin provided greater resistance. They observed that the greater resistance of the darker birds confirmed Gloger's rule. The evolution of coloration is based on sexual selection, and it has been suggested that carotenoid-based pigments may have evolved; these pigments are likely to be honest signals of fitness because they are derived from special diets, or because carotenoids are required for immune function.
The feather surface is the home for some ectoparasites, notably feather lice (Phthiraptera) and feather mites. Feather lice typically live on a single host and can move only from parents to chicks, between mating birds, and, occasionally, by phoresy. This life history has resulted in most of the parasite species being specific to the host and coevolving with the host, making them of interest in phylogenetic studies.
Feather holes are chewing traces of lice (most probably Brueelia spp. lice) on the wing and tail feathers. They were described on barn swallows, and because of easy countability, many evolutionary, ecological, and behavioral publications use them to quantify the intensity of infestation.
Interestingly, parasitic cuckoos which grow up in the nests of other species also have host specific feather lice and these seem to be transmitted only after the young cuckoos leave the host nest.
Birds maintain their feather condition by bathing in water, dust bathing, and preening. It has been suggested that a peculiar behavior of birds, anting, in which ants are introduced into the plumage, helps to reduce parasites, but no supporting evidence has been found.
Feathers have a number of utilitarian, cultural and religious uses.
Feathers are both soft and excellent at trapping heat; thus, they are sometimes used in high-class bedding, especially pillows, blankets, and mattresses. They are also used as filling for winter clothing and outdoor bedding, such as quilted coats and sleeping bags. Goose and eider down have great loft, the ability to expand from a compressed, stored state to trap large amounts of compartmentalized, insulating air.
Feathers of large birds (most often geese) have been and are used to make quill pens. The word pen itself is derived from the Latin penna, meaning feather. The French word plume can mean either feather or pen.
Feathers are also valuable in aiding the identification of species in forensic studies, particularly in bird strikes to aircraft. The ratios of hydrogen isotopes in feathers help in determining the geographic origins of birds. Feathers may also be useful in the non-destructive sampling of pollutants.
The poultry industry produces a large amount of feathers as waste, and, like other forms of keratin, are slow to decompose. Feather waste has been used in a number of industrial applications as a medium for culturing microbes, biodegradeable polymers, and production of enzymes. Feather proteins have been tried as an adhesive for wood board.
The hunting of birds for decorative and ornamentatal feathers (including in Victorian fashion) has endangered some species. For instance, South American hummingbird feathers were used in the past to dress some of the miniature birds featured in singing bird boxes.
Eagle feathers have great cultural and spiritual value to American Indians in the USA and First Nations peoples in Canada as religious objects. In the United States the religious use of eagle and hawk feathers is governed by the eagle feather law, a federal law limiting the possession of eagle feathers to certified and enrolled members of federally recognized Native American tribes.
In South America, brews made from the feathers of condors are used in traditional medications. In India, feathers of the Indian Peacock have been used in traditional medicine for snakebite, infertility and coughs.
During the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries a booming international trade in plumes, to satisfy market demand in North America and Europe for extravagant head-dresses as adornment for fashionable women, caused so much destruction (for example, to egret breeding colonies) that a major campaign against it by conservationists led to the Lacey Act and caused the fashion to change and the feather market to collapse. Frank Chapman noted in 1886 that as many as 40 species of birds were used in about three-fourths of the 700 ladies' hats that he observed in New York City.
More recently, rooster plumage has become a popular trend as a hairstyle accessory, with feathers formerly used as fishing lures now being used to provide color and style to hair. Today, the use of feathers in fashion and in adorning regimental headresses and clothes makes use of a waste product of the farming of poultry birds, including chickens, geese, turkeys, pheasants and ostriches. Feathers used for these purposes are deliberately modified through dyeing and manipulation to enhance the appearance of these poultry feathers, as they are naturally often dull in appearance compared to the feathers of wild species which designers are attempting to mimic. The number of feather products manufacturers in Europe has decreased enormously in the last 60 years, mainly due to competition from Asia. One surviving company, Jaffe et fils, founded in 1946, formerly of London but now based in Axminster, Devon, is one of the last in Europe to dye and manufacture feather products for fashion, theatre, and military regalia. Feathers have adorned hats at many prestigious events such as weddings and Ladies Day at race courses(Royal Ascot). One milliner, Philip Treacy, has specialized in the use of feathers. He has created highly regarded hats notably for the Royal Family. One such was the hat was worn by Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, on her marriage to Prince Charles.
The functional view on the evolution of feathers has traditionally focused on insulation, flight and display. Discoveries of non-flying Late Cretaceous feathered dinosaurs in China, however, suggest that flight could not have been the original primary function as the feathers simply would not have been capable of providing any form of lift. There have been suggestions that feathers may have had their original function in thermoregulation, waterproofing, or even as sinks for metabolic wastes such as sulphur. Recent discoveries are claimed to support a thermoregulatory function, at least in smaller dinosaurs. While feathers have been suggested as having evolved from reptilian scales, there are numerous objections to that idea, and more recent explanations have arisen from the paradigm of evolutionary developmental biology. Theories of the scale-based origins of feathers suggest that the planar scale structure was modified for development into feathers by splitting to form the webbing; however, that developmental process involves a tubular structure arising from a follicle and the tube splitting longitudinally to form the webbing. The number of feathers per unit area of skin is higher in smaller birds than in larger birds, and this trend points to their important role in thermal insulation, since smaller birds lose more heat due to the relatively larger surface area in proportion to their body weight. The miniaturization of birds also played a role in the evolution of powered flight. The coloration of feathers is believed to have evolved primarily in response to sexual selection. In many cases, the physiological condition of the birds (especially males) is indicated by the quality of their feathers, and this is used (by the females) in mate choice. A study published in 2006 confirmed the presence of information for producing feathers in the genes of the American alligator, but these instructions are suppressed during embryological development, causing the alligator hatchling to express only scales. The presence of a homologous trait in both birds and crocodilians indicates it was inherited from a common ancestor. This may suggest that avian feathers, dinosaur protofeathers, and pterosaur pycnofibres are all variations on the same basal archosaur integument, placing the origin of feathers much further back in history than previously thought.
Several non-avian dinosaurs had feathers on their limbs that would not have functioned for flight. One theory is that feathers originally evolved on dinosaurs as a result of their insulation properties; small dinosaurs that grew longer feathers may have found them helpful in gliding, leading to the evolution of proto-birds like Archaeopteryx and Microraptor zhaoianus. Another theory is that the original adaptive advantage of early feathers was their pigmentation or iridescence, contributing to sexual preference in mate selection. Dinosaurs that had feathers or protofeathers include Pedopenna daohugouensis and Dilong paradoxus, a tyrannosauroid which is 60 to 70 million years older than Tyrannosaurus rex.
The majority of dinosaurs known to have had feathers or protofeathers are saurischians, however featherlike "filamentous integumentary structures" are also known from the ornithischians Tianyulong and Psittacosaurus. The exact nature of these structures is still under study. However, it is believed that the stage 1 feathers such as those seen in these two ornithischians likely functioned in display.
Since the 1990s, dozens of feathered dinosaurs have been discovered in the clade Maniraptora, which includes the clade Avialae and the recent common ancestors of birds, Oviraptorosauria and Deinonychosauria. In 1998, the discovery of a feathered oviraptorosaurian, Caudipteryx zoui, challenged the notion that feathers were an exclusive structure of Avialae. Buried in the Yixian Formation in Liaoning, China, C. zoui lived during the Early Cretaceous Period. Present on the forelimbs and tails, their integumentary structure has been accepted as pennaceous vaned feathers based on the rachis and herringbone pattern of the barbs. In the clade Deinonychosauria, the continued divergence of feathers is also apparent in the families Troodontidae and Dromaeosauridae. Branched feathers with rachis, barbs, and barbules were discovered in many members including Sinornithosaurus millenii, a dromaeosaurid found in the Yixian formation (124.6 MYA).
Previously, a temporal paradox existed in the evolution of feathers—theropods with highly derived bird-like characteristics occurred at a later time than Archaeopteryx—suggesting that the descendants of birds arose before the ancestor. However, this paradox was resolved in 2009 with the discovery of Anchiornis huxleyi, found in the Late Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation (160 MYA) in western Liaoning. By predating Archaeopteryx, Anchiornis proves the existence of a modernly feathered theropod ancestor, providing insight into the dinosaur-bird transition. The specimen shows distribution of large pennaceous feathers on the forelimbs and tail, implying that pennaceous feathers spread to the rest of the body at an earlier stage in theropod evolution. The discovery, in 2011, of feathers preserved in amber, within samples dating to 80 mya, suggests the coexistence of theropods and birds, with both theropod and avian feather types commingled in the samples.
Several studies of feather development in the embryos of modern birds, coupled with the distribution of feather types among various prehistoric bird precursors, have allowed scientists to attempt a reconstruction of the sequence in which feathers first evolved and developed into the types found on modern birds.
Feather evolution was broken down into the following stages by Xu and Guo in 2009:
However, Foth (2011) showed that some of these purported stages (stages 2 and 5 in particular) are likely simply artifacts of preservation caused by the way fossil feathers are crushed and the feather remains or imprints are preserved. Foth re-interpreted stage 2 feathers as crushed or misidentified feathers of at least stage 3, and stage 5 feathers as crushed stage 6 feathers.
The following simplified diagram of dinosaur relationships follows these results, and shows the likely distribution of plumaceous (downy) and pennaceous (vaned) feathers among dinosaurs and prehistoric birds. The diagram follows one presented by Xu and Guo (2009) modified with the findings of Foth (2011). The numbers accompanying each name refer to the presence of specific feather stages. Note that 's' indicates the known presence of scales on the body.
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