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Blue Jays' Feathers Never Fade: Sophisticated Nanostructures Underlying Birds' Vivid Plumage Revealed In New Study

Dec 21, 2015 02:48 PM EST

Human hair grays with age, but a blue jay's bright blue feathers never fade – why? Accordingto University of Sheffield researchers, it's because birds employ a sophisticated method of producing vibrant color that does not dim over time.

For their study, researchers used X-ray scattering to examine the blue and white feathers of ble jays and found that the boldly colored birds are actually able to control changes in the nanostructures of their feathers to create vivid colors, according to their news release.

Blue jay's feathers, which can vary from ultra violet in color to blue or white, are made of a nanostructured spongy keratin material –the same underlying material found in human hair and fingernails – but birds can manipulate the size of the holes in this sponge-like structure to reflect more or less light. When light hits their feathers, the size of these holes ultimately determines what light is reflected, thus producing a specific color. Larger holes give reflect a whiter color and smaller holes give off a bluer hues.

Birds avoid any type of fading or graying because their nanostructures remain intact over their lifetime.

"Conventional thought was that to control light using materials in this way we would need ultra precise and controlled structures with many different processing stages, but if nature can assemble this material 'on the wing', then we should be able to do it synthetically too," Dr. Andrew Parnell, one of the study researchers from the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy , explained in the university's release. "This discovery means that in the future, we could create long-lasting colored coatings and materials synthetically. We have discovered it is the way in which it is formed and the control of this evolving nanostructure – by adjusting the size and density of the holes in the spongy like structure -- that determines what color is reflected."

Researchers believe the study has implications for making clothing dye and paints brighter and fresher-looking for longer periods. Their study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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