Study looks at feather structures

Materials used in the construction, automotive and aircraft industries could be improved following research into previously unrecognised structures in birds’ feathers.

The study, carried out at Reading University in collaboration with colleagues in South Africa, looked at how feathers were constructed and in particular at the keratin fibres within the main feather shaft.

Feather keratin is said to be an extremely tough material, which is very similar to the major constituent in hair, nails and hooves. The team used fungi to degrade material surrounding the fibres, allowing their structures to be seen for the first time.

One of the most important findings was the discovery of tiny hooks that act in a very similar way to the reinforcement bars in concrete, used in bridges, office buildings and houses. However, unlike the reinforcement bars, the hooks have extra gripping power to prevent damage to the feather shaft, which could be replicated in engineering technology.

Dr Richard Bonser, lecturer in Biomimetics in the School of Construction Management and Engineering, said: ‘Biomimetics is all about using good design in nature and developing new products.

‘Our findings show that there is real potential to take the feather-hook design and adapt it for use in engineered materials and in particular to develop composite materials that are much tougher and have stronger bonding powers,’ he added.