Feathers: 200 Million Years In Just Over 3 Minutes


Last year I wrote in National Geographic about the long, remarkable history of feathers. The folks at TED-Ed (the educational wing of TED) invited me to boil down that history to about three minutes–accompanied by a splendid animation by Armeilia Leung. Here’s what we came up with.

For more information, you can visit the video’s page at TED-Ed.

Written By: Carl Zimmer
continue to source article at


  1. We had an earlier discussion on the National Geographic article by Carl Zimmer on Feather Evolution:


    The five pages of the original Nat Geog Article plus photographs, are linked here:-


    This OP video gives a good explanation of the various forms of evolving feather. This was included in the original hard-copy magazine version, but not in the linked on-line version. I commented on it here!

  2. As I pointed out at the end the earlier linked discussion, feathers have not only evolved on birds and dinosaurs!

    @OP – Feathers: 200 Million Years In Just Over 3 Minutes

    Simple feathers have evolved from spines and hairs on Cacti to give protection from sun and drying winds, possibly also collecting dew in an arid climate. They have evolved in much less than 200 million years!

    The sub-families of cactus differentiated about 70 million years ago. Approximately 50 million years before the present, Cenozoic cooling produced regionally arid conditions which further stimulated their evolution. A particular jungle thorn bush was among these early cacti, which bore all seven characteristics with which Cactaceae are endowed. This ancestral cactus led to descendants with regional adaptations. Pereskia aculeata, a robust woody shrub with succulent leaves which produces the Barbados Gooseberry, is believed to resemble the ancestor. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Cactus

    The best example of this is probably Mammillaria plumosa. Here is a link to a set of photographs showing this “feathered plant”! Mammillaria plumosa – ML 524 – Photo : Michel Lacoste

  3. @OP – Feathers: 200 Million Years In Just Over 3 Minutes

    Interestingly, Cacti have evolved simple feathers and Cacti evolved from a thorny bush about 70 million years ago, with further diversification about 50 million years ago.

    The feathered spination gives protection from sun and drying winds. It can also collect dew.

    The best example of this Mammilaria plumosa with a linked series of photographs here: Mammillaria plumosa
    Other related Mammillarias have spines, hairs or wool performing the same functions.

  4. history of feathers…educational wing


    Carl Zimmer is in the elite group who can explain science for the layperson; lovely animation – interesting music, sounds as if it is being played backwards.

  5. In reply to #7 by bluebird:

    In reply to #2 by Alan4discussion:



    It is a distinguishing feature of the Mammillaria genus of Cacti that the ribs of the plant body are divided into separate tubercles or nipples, which bear the areoles (modified axillary buds) from which the spines grow.
    Mammillaria karwinskiana shows this.

    Some have an elongated groove along the top edge of the nipples, with the flowers emerging further from in, where they are initially protected by the spines. – Mammillaria jaliscana ssp zacatecasensis Some like this one have hooked spines and are known locally as “Fish-hook Cacti” – alluding to native American usage! (You should be able to find as many examples as you like on the links although most have nothing to do with feathers. )

Leave a Reply