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The mating dance of the male superb bird of paradise is like nothing else on Earth. To win the affection of a female, he forms a sort of satellite dish with his body, revealing an entrancing band of blue. He jumps about like this, clicking in the face of the rather drab female, who appears simultaneously intrigued and horrified.
Other species of birds of paradise may vary in their plumage and tactics, but they share something remarkable: their black feathers. OK, maybe not remarkable at first glance, but a study out today in the journal Nature Communications reveals that those feathers absorb 99.95 percent of light. That’s nearly none more black, and virtually identical to the 99.965 percent of light that Vantablack, the world’s darkest artificial substance, can absorb. And it’s all thanks to black feathers structured like a forest of chaos.
The black feathers of the male bird of paradise eat light. Which again, metal. That’s because unlike your typical bird feather, which is more or less neatly structured with branches that branch off of branches, kind of like a fractal, the bird of paradise feather looks like an irregular forest of trees (see the image below for a comparison).
This leads to a whole lot of cavities in the feather. “Light strikes the feather, and is repeatedly scattered within these cavities,” says Harvard evolutionary biologist Dakota McCoy, lead author of the paper. “Each time it scatters, a little bit is absorbed, so that's how they become so black.” (Nitpicky thing I should probably mention: The feathers absorb 99.95 percent of directly incident light, meaning light coming from straight ahead, where the female would be standing. When it comes to light from all sides, the figure is more like 96.86 percent.) Which is particularly odd because human-made super-blacks rely not on chaos, but strict patterning of structures.
This is known as structural absorption, and it’s fundamentally different from how pigment works in the animal kingdom. A pigment on, say, a parrot, absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others, manifesting as color. The idea behind the structural absorption of the bird of paradise's super-black, on the other hand, is light keeps bouncing around the "forest" of structures, absorbing and absorbing.
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