Polymer Science Faculty Research


Structural color change following hydration and dehydration of iridescent mourning dove

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Dynamic changes in integumentary color occur in cases as diverse as the neurologically controlled iridiphores of cephalopod skin and the humidity-responsive cuticles of longhorn beetles. By contrast, feather colors are generally assumed to be relatively static, changing by small amounts only over periods of months. However, this assumption has rarely been tested even though structural colors of feathers are produced by ordered nanostructures that are analogous to those in the aforementioned dynamic systems. Feathers are neither innervated nor vascularized and therefore any color change must be caused by external stimuli. Thus, we here explore how feathers of iridescent mourning doves Zenaida macroura respond to a simple stimulus: addition and evaporation of water. After three rounds of experimental wetting and subsequent evaporation, iridescent feather color changed hue, became more chromatic and increased in overall reflectance by almost 50%. To understand the mechanistic basis of this change, we used electron microscopy to examine macro- and nanostructures before and after treatment. Transmission electron microscopy and transfer matrix thin-film models revealed that color is produced by thin-film interference from a single (∼ 35 nm layer of keratin around the edge of feather barbules, beneath which lies a layer of air and melanosomes. After treatment, the most striking morphological difference was a twisting of colored barbules that exposed more of their surface area for reflection, explaining the observed increase in brightness. These results suggest that some plumage colors may be more malleable than previously thought, leading to new avenues for research on dynamic plumage color.

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