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J Exp Biol. 2011 Dec 1;214(Pt 23):3960-7. doi: 10.1242/jeb.062620.

Kingfisher feathers--colouration by pigments, spongy nanostructures and thin films.

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  • 1Computational Physics, Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Groningen, NL-9747 AG Groningen, The Netherlands. D.G.Stavenga@rug.nl


The colours of the common kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, reside in the barbs of the three main types of feather: the orange breast feathers, the cyan back feathers and the blue tail feathers. Scanning electron microscopy showed that the orange barbs contain small pigment granules. The cyan and blue barbs contain spongy nanostructures with slightly different dimensions, causing different reflectance spectra. Imaging scatterometry showed that the pigmented barbs create a diffuse orange scattering and the spongy barb structures create iridescence. The extent of the angle-dependent light scattering increases with decreasing wavelength. All barbs have a cortical envelope with a thickness of a few micrometres. The reflectance spectra of the cortex of the barbs show oscillations when measured from small areas, but when measured from larger areas the spectra become wavelength independent. This can be directly understood with thin film modelling, assuming a somewhat variable cortex thickness. The cortex reflectance appears to be small but not negligible with respect to the pigmentary and structural barb reflectance.

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