National Geographic article Q and A

With Carl Zimmer

There is an open door to ask question of  author Carl Zimmer, in regard to the “long, curious, extravagant evolution of feathers”. The article is in this months National Geographic Magazine (Feb. 2011) , just gone on sale, or here online:

I asked several friends if they had any questions about the article. Martin Collinson and Andy Stoddart came up with these, each followed by Carl’s response.

The 4 amazing right side  photos taken by Rebecca Nason. Can you name them (without checking Rebecca’s blog!). The 1st and 3rd and regular in the UK, the 2nd and 4th are not!

P.S. you must check out Rebecca’s blog- just don’t look for those feather photos!

Any more for any more Q’s for Carl?

1)  Do you think that feathers evolved for display and subsequently gotsubverted for flight?  Or was it thermoregulation?

C.Z. The earliest traces of feathers are patches of bristles, which would have been unlikely to do much good for thermoregulation. So that leaves visual functions—sexual display or camouflage.

2) If scales and feathers are basically the same thing, why don’t any birds

have stripy legs?

C.Z. I don’t know the answer to that, sorry.

3) How many times do you think flight has evolved? 

C.Z. Flight has evolved several times—once in birds, once in pterosaurs, once in bats, and probably a few times in insects.

4) How about those birds (e.g. on throats of hummingbirds) where feather pigment is absent but instead the feathers are reflective (a product of the microscopic structure of the feathers). How/why did this evolve and what are the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages to this feather type?

C.Z. know now that dinosaurs already had iridescent feathers. It’s possible that these bright colors evolved as sexual displays. In particular, they might have signified that a male was in good condition, and therefore a good mate.

Disk tail-feather tip, wobbles during display. Robert Clark/ National Geographic
Courtesy Peter Mullen, Ph.D.

2 thoughts on “National Geographic article Q and A

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  2. Simon Mahood

    Hi Martin,

    Like Carl I also don’t know the answer to question 2, but at least one bird does have stripy feet: the Sungrebe Heliornis fulica.




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