The Science Behind Birds Of Paradise's "Vantablack" Feathers

Scientists invented Vantablack – a color so dark it creates a “schism in space” – in 2014. Now, new research proves the demonically dark shade has been lurking around in the animal kingdom for quite some time.

Five species of birds of paradise, including the Lophorina superba (aka the superb bird of paradise), sport an intense, velvety black plumage. So intense, they rival man-made “Vantablack”.

According to a paper, published in Nature Communications, the feathers of the superb bird of paradise can absorb 99.95 percent of light when they face the light directly. This falls to 96.86 percent in indirect light, which is a similar absorption rate to asphalt. To compare, blackbird feathers absorb between 95 and 97 percent of light.

How is this possible? Harvard University scientists have discovered that it comes down to the structure of the feathers, not the pigmentation.

The light absorbing properties of the "Vantablack" feathers are so powerful that even when coated with a shiny gold metal they appear black (right image). This is because the color isn't the product of pigmentation as it is for, say, a raven. It's the product of the feather's structure. Pigmented black feather for comparison (left image). Dakota McCoyCC BY-ND

Imagine a feather with the rachi as its central pillar. Barbs extend out from the rachi, and barbules branch out from the bars. In most cases, the structure is entirely flat. This is not the case for “Vantablack” feathers, which instead have a jagged texture. Not only do the barbules curve upwards, they contain additional spikes. 

“It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.”

The result: It captures and absorbs light in a way regular feathers cannot. Light particles are trapped in the barbules and “scatter” around the structure until they’re fully absorbed.

A "regular" black feather (left) versus a feather from the Paradise Riflebird, which (like the superb bird of paradise) has a jagged texture and an intense black color. Dakota McCoyCC BY-ND

So, what is the purpose of having such incredibly dark feathers? We can rule out camouflage – if this was the case, female birds would be equally flamboyant. Put simply, the answer is sex. The intensity of the black makes the surrounding colors (in this case, turquoise) all the more impressive.

“In the high-stakes game of choosing a mate, a single feather that isn’t quite blue enough could be enough to turn off a female bird of paradise. Clearly, female birds of paradise prefer males with super-black plumage,” McCoy explained in an article in The Conversation.

Sadly for the male bird above, his enthusiastic dance wasn't enough to attract a female.

“Evolution is not an orderly, coherent process; evolutionary arms races can produce great innovation,” said McCoy. “Perhaps these super-black feathers with their unique microscopic structure could eventually inspire better solar panels, or new textiles; super-black butterfly wings already have.”

“Evolution has had millions of years to tinker; we still have much to learn from its solutions.”


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