What do birds and aerospace engineers have in common? Both have invented incredibly dark, “super-black” surfaces that absorb almost every last bit of light that strikes them.
Of course scientists worked intentionally to devise these materials. It’s evolution that brought this amazing trait about in birds. My co-lead author Teresa Feo, our colleagues Todd A. Harvey and Rick Prum and I recently investigated the super-black feathers in some of the most outlandish animals on earth: the Birds of Paradise.
These are resplendent birds native to Papua New Guinea and surrounding areas. Males are brilliantly colored, with complicated mating dances. Females, who are drab and brown in comparison, carefully inspect the ornaments and dances of males before choosing their mate.
We wanted to know more about these birds’ super-black plumage and how it works. What mechanism do these feathers employ to be so effective at absorbing light?