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Scientists are stunned by this bird’s feathers, which are so black they absorb 99.9% of light

Published Jan 10th, 2018 12:31PM EST
blackest bird
Image: GregTheBusker

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In nature, bright colors are useful in a variety of ways. Some insects sport eye-catching colors that warn would-be predators that they’re poisonous, and many plants produce colorful flowers that attract insects which aid in pollination. In mating, many species of birds use bold colors to attract mates, but one bird of paradise species does things a little differently. Rather than being covered in color, the birds are largely covered in soft black feathers which absorb so much light that they rival manmade materials.

When the male of the species begins its mating ritual, it raises its wings into a cone-like shape, revealing a bright patch of bluish-green feathers surrounded by incredibly black plumage. Researchers from Yale decided to take a closer look at those dark feathers and what they found was something truly remarkable. Their work was published in Nature Communications.

“Optical measurements showed that these feather patches absorb up to 99.95% of directly incident light, a percentage comparable to manmade ultra-black materials used in the lining of space telescopes,” the researchers explain. “Microscopic structures of the wings even resemble those designed by engineers to create ultra-black materials used to facilitate light absorption in solar panels.”

In short, evolution has given the birds the blackest of black feathers. With such impressive darkness surrounding its bright blue plumage, the birds appear almost alien in their mating dances, and that’s apparently just what the females of the species are looking for.

“Sexual selection has produced some of the most remarkable traits in nature,” Rick Prum, senior author of the study, says. “Hopefully, engineers can use what the bird of paradise teaches us to improve our own human technologies as well.”

At present, the darkest manmade material ever produced is said to absorb 99.96% of all light that comes in contact with it. The substance, called Vantablack, is so dark that it can actually mess with your eyes, especially when it’s applied to a three-dimensional object. Actually creating the material is no easy task, as it’s made up of tiny carbon nanotubes arranged in a grid which trap light and prevent it from bouncing back.

“Evolution sometimes ends up with the same solutions as humans,” Plum says.