We live in a world of backgrounded miracles, entire worlds of wonder and beauty that we either can’t see or stopped noticing a long time ago. Look closely at the wings of a fly on your window sill, stare into a bisected piece of fruit, or look carefully at a growth of mold on a dish. Millions of such micro worlds surround us, breathtaking examples of design, engineering, and evolutionary artistry. When we bother to look.
Feathers is a photographic examination of one such overlooked natural wonder, the lowly bird feather. A single bird has thousands of feathers, of different types, and there are some ten-thousand species of birds. Feathers takes a broad view of the evolution of the bird and its feathers while focusing its lens on the plumage of 75 or so notable species. Each species gets a few pages, with one or two impressively photographed feather close-ups and a brief explanatory text.
This book reminded me a lot of Rose Lynn Fisher’s BEE (which I loved). Both books are minimal in content and feel, but that only helps to narrow and maintain your focus on the world under examination. The text in Feathers doesn’t try to tell you everything about the species of the bird and feather that you’re looking at, but the bits of fascinating science it does contain are probably far more memorable. Like BEE, I felt like I got to peer into a world I don’t normally see and came away greatly enriched by the experience. Read the rest
One of the most common arguments you'll hear against evolution (or, at least, one of the most common arguments I heard growing up amongst creationists) had to do with transitional forms. An eye is a valuable thing, this argument goes. But half an eye? That's just a disability.
Like many of the really common arguments against evolution, this one crumbles the minute you start to apply the slightest bit of fridge logic. Sure, half an eye is less useful than a full eye. (Or, more accurately, a clustering of light-sensitive cells don't have all the functionality of a modern eyeball and optic nerve system.) But, if most of the other creatures have no eyes, and you have a few light-sensitive cells, you've got an advantage. And an advantage is all it takes.
Now apply that to the evolution of birds. One of the cool things about this process is that it appears that feathers evolved before flight. In fact, feathers seems to have evolved rather independently of flight.
You might ask: What's the point of that? How are feathers an advantage if they can't help you fly? Is this just about looking pretty? Maybe. But on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer presents another hypothesis. Feathers and wings, even without flight, might have given their owners a physical advantage over bare-skinned cousins. The birds in this video aren't flying. You can see that their feet don't leave the ground. But the act of flapping those feathers around helps them to walk up inclines that would otherwise be impassable walls. Read the rest