Exquisite Feathers

Bird feathers are evolutionary wonders.

“As the saying goes in architecture, ‘form follows function,’ but when it comes to feathers I would say if form follows function, then beauty follows form.”

The book Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark  is brimming with exquisite photos and facts to tempt the curious mind to embark on a journey filled with beauty and ideas about how the thousand of varieties of feathers have developed throughout history. Feathers have been designed for warmt, camouflage and sexual competivesss. This book is a perfect marriage between art and scienc; detailed cl0se-ups of feathers is paired with text about the utility as well as the evolution of the feather on the photo..

Robert is taking us on a journey filled with elegance as well as the past and interesting uses of feathers.

“The ways in which feathers have evolved and manifested themselves over time is riveting to me; over millions of years the scales of a dinosaur deviated and began to grow upward in spines that covered the body of birds. Through many generations, these spines spread, evolving specific purposes for the regions on the body on which they grew; eventually these spinal structures were imbued with extravagant colors and features,” writes Robert.

The aim is to make the feathers “look as if you could pick them up” and I could not agree more. So pick up the book and enjoy!


The colour of scarlet macaw’s feather helps it live and blend in various different habitats. This is a secondary wing covert feather.


Bird of Paradise.


Golden Headed Quetzal (Pharomachus auriceps)
Golden-Headed Quetzal (Pharomachus auriceps)
FEATHER TYPE : contour feather from the flank   LATIN NAME: Ithaginis cruentus   ENGLISH NAME: Blood Pheasant   REGION: Asia   OTHER NOTES: The green colour stems from a rare pigment called Turacoverdin   Further Information contact : Dr. Peter Mullen Kirchplatz 6 42489 Wuelfrath email: petermullen@gmx.de cell: +491726411691
The green colour stems from a rare pigment called Turacoverdin. Blood Phesant.

FEATHER TYPE : Wing   LATIN NAME: Lamprotornis superbus   ENGLISH NAME: Superb Starling   REGION: Africa Further Information contact : Dr. Peter Mullen Kirchplatz 6 42489 Wuelfrath email: petermullen@gmx.de cell: +491726411691

Superb Starling












Compassion for All Living “Conscious?” Creatures

” We must stop ignoring their gaze and closing our heart to their pleas.
We can easily do what they ask – to stop causing them unnecessary pain, suffering, loneliness, sadness, and death, even extinction. “

Mark Bekoff


Imagine that you are suggesting at a dinner party that bees have feelings and that you are considering ideas to improve their life.

What would the reaction be?

Would people at the party look at you with deep admiration?

Or would they quickly try to change the subject and just stare at you like you were mad?

This is the sort of question that often whizz around in my head but I rarely dare to raise the question. Why? Well, sometimes it feels like it is a too big provocation and people simply are not ready for these kinds of ideas.

So I was delighted when I read the article “Insects may have feelings, so do we need more humane fly spray?” by Peter Singer. He is famous for his book Animal Liberation and he works with bioethics. In the article, he discusses ethical questions related to the way we treat insects.

Scientists are increasingly more willing to draw parallels between mammals and insects. Some of these areas where they have found parallels raise ethical questions about the way we treat insects. For example, the main part of the nervous system of insects operates in a similar way as a mammalian midbrain. The central ganglion in insects may provide them with a most basic form of consciousness. Bees have recently been found to show positive emotion-like states. The term emotion-like state is not necessarily the same as saying that they do indeed feel happy or sad, and the bees may not be conscious. Yet, they could be. For an ethical and moral point of view, the presence or absence of consciousness is crucial. Consciousness opens the room to the ability to suffer.

Laws related to the protection of animals used in research are limited to vertebrates. There is little doubt about the capacity for suffering. But if bees can suffer, should they be included too. What about mosquitoes? Are bees special because of their way of communicating? Honey bees perform an intricate waggle-dance. But so far they are the only insects that have been found to use such a complex way of communicating, so maybe not all insects are conscious.  . .

And of course, being conscious does not necessarily give a living creature the right to life. But at least, it is a good argument to start demanding for a human treatment. Or, what do you think?


Shape Matters

Shape Matters!

What if we could transform our thinking and use less material and more clever shapes?
What if we could build things of whatever flies around like a spider ?


Photo Greenstone Girl

All spiders produce silk but not all spiders use it to produce webs. Different spices of web-building spiders spin different patterns. So you can identify the type of spider by looking and the intricate web they spin.

Animals do not spend time trying to create a wonderful material. They use the material that is available and the results are often mindblowing. A spider squirt the liquid silk out of their spinneret glands and this material is in liquid form until it hits the air where it hardens into a sticky substance.  Making the web is energetically costly process that requires a large amount of protein, the silk. A spider-web can use a fly to produce more webs to help them catch more flies. Spiders also eat their own web to reuse some of the energy that was used to spin it. They recycle the silk proteins.

Gecko’s feet are sticky something that has spark several ideas from climbing robots to surgical bandage. Yet, the feet are not sticky because of some special material, rather the shape of the hairs on the feet makes them sticky. The answer is molecular attractions that operate over small distances – van der Waals forces. The tiny hairs help to maximise contact with the surface.

Material is nature is expensive while shape is cheap.

This is a great lesson that humans perhaps should consider more often when designing things and solving problems.

In the video below, an exciting  research project,  ‘Metamaterial Mechanisms’ , at the Hasso Plattner Institute shows a new way that shape is used to create a material that can be used for a range or purposes. Different types of performances based on the shape. Exciting!




“It’s Hot Outside!” – Zebra Finch Parents tells their chicks

How do animals respond to climate change?

Well, birds may tell their offsprings that it is hot outside the egg.


Photo: A male Zebra Finch, Jim Bendon

Beep, meep, oi! or a-ha!.

Zebra finches are loud singers who are native to central Australia, Indonesia and East Timor. They inhabit grasslands as well as forests usually close to  water. This little songbird is preparing its offsprings for a warming world. A study has found that the zebra finches are making special calls to the embryos inside their eggs. The embryos can hear the sounds. The zebra finches are using sounds to influence the growth and development of their chicks.  So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

This little songbird is preparing its offsprings for a warming world. A study has found that the zebra finches are making special calls to the embryos inside their eggs. The embryos can hear the sounds. The zebra finches are using sounds to influence the growth and development of their chicks.  So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

Well, another study recently found that fairy-wrens learn, just like humans, as embryos. The embryos lowered their heart-rate when they heard calls from their own species but they did not respond to a white noise, which was a call from another species. The fairy-wren parents teach their embryos a special “password” to help them get food from their parents after hatching,

The idea that zebra finch parents would talk to their eggs and tell them important things about the world outside occurred to Mylene Mariette and Katherine Buchanan, when they noticed that parents would sometimes make a rapid, high-pitched series of calls while sitting on the eggs. They saw that the parents would only make these calls towards the end of the incubation period and when the maximum daily temperature rose above 26°C  (78.8°F).


Photo: Zebra finch chicks, Martin Pot

To test the idea that the calls would prepare the chicks they incubated 166 eggs and exposed them to the standard temperature of 37.7°C (99.9°F). Then they either exposed the chicks to the recorded incubation calls or the parents’ normal contact calls. The chicks that had listened to the incubation calls weighed less which is an advantage when the environment is hot. A smaller body is better at losing heat.

Vocal communication seems to have persistent effects on the birds. The lower weight chicks produced more fledglings than the control birds. Yet the control birds were more successful in a cooler environment. Zebra finches live in arid conditions so they availability of water is important. The birds only breed when the conditions are good so the change in calls make sense.

It is a comforting thought that birds as tiny as zebra finches can tell their offspring that the world is heating up. Yet I cannot help to wonder why humans are so slow to react. . .





Sandpipers at the Beach

Tanking sunshine and surfing on waves.


Photo: By Alpsdake (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],via Wikimedia Commons

The political climate in the UK has been tumultuous the last weeks and today the new Prime Minister Theresa May decided to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Worrying sign!

I had hoped that she would have taken the opportunity to design plans for ways to not only reduce the part that the UK plays in contributing to the climate change but also ensure that we plan for a future with rising sea levels.

The two major causes of global sea-level rise can be identified: thermal expansion caused by the warming of the oceans and the loss of land-based ice due to increased melting. When water heats up it expands and it is estimated that around half of the past century’s rise in sea level is due to warmer oceans simply taking more space. Melting glaciers and polar ice-caps have also contributed to rising sea-levels.

So new exciting ideas are needed to prepare for the rising sea-levels. Inspiration for planning cities and building houses can perhaps come from watching sea-birds,

A day at the beach can be truly magical.

But it can also be a day filled with wonderous and mind-boggling ideas and questions.

Dream up the most amazing modern city or house inspired by seabirds that can survive the waves and survive until the next day. Look at the wading birds long and slender legs.

Dream, build and invent.

Dragonfly Timelapse

Like a fairy dancing over the meadow or the pond, the delicate dragonfly spends most of its life  under water.


Flickr: S Hooper Dragonfly in Malaysia

The second stage of their life cycle, the nymph stage, lasts between one and five years and the beautiful dragonfly turns after the egg stage into a ferocious and hungry predator. Like a hungry alien with a large mouth, the nymph lacks wings but you can spot a hump hanging onto its back. The transformation from a nymph to a beautiful dragonfly often takes place during the spring when it is warm enough for them to spread out their wings.
Delicate wings but surprisingly strong. The wings are flapped at a rate of about 40 HZ and dragonflies use a asymmetrical rowing motion. When they are hovering the body lies almost horizontal and the rowing motion helps them to support their body-weight by the upward drag that is created during the down-stroke of the wings.

Look at the Lobster’s Way of Dealing with Stress

What is the function of stress in nature?


Flickr Lobster by phalinn ooi

If you look the lobster, you see that it has a soft body inside a shell. The shell, which is rigid,  becomes very confining as the lobster grows. So what does the lobster do? Well, it goes away and hides under a rock. The lobster searches for a safe place where it can shred the uncomfortable shell and grow a new one. This process happens over and over again. A lobster can even grow new claw that it has lost during a fight.

Stress in nature is a time for rest and new growth.

Yet, when the lobster leaves its new shell it is very vulnerable just like we may feel vulnerable when we try new ideas that may emerge after some time of reflection and growth. The new lobster shell is soft so the lobster is an easy prey. To make sure it does not get eaten, the lobster hides  a week or two to gain a new strong shell.

Studying the way an animal deals with different situations can provide new ideas for how to enrich our lives and deal with different situations.

Happy Easter and Happy Nature Watching!