On the Origin of Really Shiny Species


If you talk about a starling, most people in Europe and North America will picture a small bird with glossy  black plumage. But that’s the common starling. It’s just one of 113 starling species, many of which have far more spectacular feathers. 

Just take a look at the selection above.

These resplendent plumes don’t just catch the eye. They may also explain why these birds are so diverse. According to a new study from Rafael Maiaat the University of Akron, the starlings’ colours have made them more evolvable, accelerating their split into more and more species.

Many birds produce beautiful feathers using pigments that selectively absorb and reflect different colours of light. But starlings owe their most stunning colours to the structures of the feathers themselves.

As light hits the feathers, it encounters several layers. At each one, some light gets reflected and the rest passes through. If the layers are evenly spaced, the reflected beams amplify each other to produce exceptionally strong colours, which can easily change depending on the distance between the layers or the angle they’re viewed from. This effect is called iridescence. You can see it on the vivid throats of hummingbirds, the tail feathers of peacocks and the plumage of many starlings.

Written By: Ed Yong
continue to source article at phenomena.nationalgeographic.com


  1. Ok, here’s the thing for me with this nature photography, especially since I’m a professional photographer. It’s fantastic. Pictures like this and many others coming from talent (try Thomas Shahan for spiders) using technology developed from science, not religion… say digital cameras… can make the hair stand up on my skin, which would be evolution, but nonethless these reactions feel alive. I rave about nature, mostly personally; I camp with a small and eccentric batch of friends that seek it out. MOVED by nature. Most people I meet would not appreciate ‘nature’ if it slapped them in the face with a fish. They claim their ‘nature’, but they don’t really understand deep time and evolution. If you have not seen a photo of the leafy dragon fish and wondered how that came about, well there’s the point.

    Mixing the church and nature is an insult. Our relationship with the natural world is as close to a perfect experience you can find if you can make yourself available to it.

    So this is a photograph of a bird. It’s more than; it is great, fantastic. This is beautiful stuff.

  2. Hear hear, PY. Well put.

    I get the willies from nature as well, but my “hair standing up” extends to things like the animation of the interfering RNA’s offered on a thread earlier in the week. We repeatedly see that “the garden is beautiful” without having to invent fairies at the bottom.

    And, I’ll say it again; the study of anything natural trumps the banal study of pretend. And it trumps it all day; every day.

  3. “Iridescent”. I learned this word at school, never had a chance to use it in correct sense.

  4. With quite a number of bird species, it is difficult to see such iridescent colors from a distance with the naked eye. You need binoculars or a telephoto lens. Once you see it, however, it is astonishing. Or as PY says, it’s moving. It’s one of many reasons why birdwatching (and other nature experiences) is such a rewarding pastime.

  5. I wonder if we will ever understand bird aesthetics. What makes a good palette? What makes a good pattern? They seem to go for high contrast, and colouring that highlights anatomical boundaries.

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