Colour-producing β-keratin nanofibres in blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers

Liliana D'Alba, Vinodkumar Saranathan, Julia A Clarke, Jakob A Vinther, Richard O Prum, Matthew D Shawkey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


The colours of living organisms are produced by the differential absorption of light by pigments (e.g. carotenoids, melanins) and/or by the physical interactions of light with biological nanostructures, referred to as structural colours. Only two fundamental morphologies of non-iridescent nanostructures are known in feathers, and recent work has proposed that they self-assemble by intracellular phase separation processes. Here, we report a new biophotonic nanostructure in the non-iridescent blue feather barbs of blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) composed of parallel β-keratin nanofibres organized into densely packed bundles. Synchrotron small angle X-ray scattering and two-dimensional Fourier analysis of electron micrographs of the barb nanostructure revealed short-range order in the organization of fibres at the appropriate size scale needed to produce the observed colour by coherent scattering. These two-dimensional quasi-ordered penguin nanostructures are convergent with similar arrays of parallel collagen fibres in avian and mammalian skin, but constitute a novel morphology for feathers. The identification of a new class of β-keratin nanostructures adds significantly to the known mechanisms of colour production in birds and suggests additional complexity in their self-assembly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)543-6
Number of pages4
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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