Brain Pickings

A Miraculous “Accident of Physics”: Carl Zimmer Explains How Feathers Evolved, Animated

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“Feathers are some of the most remarkable things ever made by an animal. They’re gorgeous in their complexity, delicate in their construction, and yet strong enough to hold a bird thousands of feet in the air.”

Charles Darwin devoted nearly three chapters of his famed treatise Descent of Man to feathers — one of the most miraculous products of evolution. In his book Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (public library), conservation biologist Thor Hanson marvels that “nothing competes with feathers for sheer diversity of form and function” — they can be soft or barbed, can store water or repel it, can conceal or attract, and are “a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered.” But how did feathers actually come about?

In this lovely short film from TED Ed, animated by Armella Leung, the inimitable Carl Zimmer — one of the finest science writers working today, and the author of the delightful Science Ink — explains how feathers evolved, a case of “an accident of physics” that took fifty million years to unfold:

Myriad more such fascinating stories can be found in Zimmer’s Evolution: Making Sense of Life (public library), a collaboration with evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen. Pair this particular marvel of evolution with this great explanation of how bird wings work and an illustrated anatomy of the unfeathered bird.

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