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Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Science Explains This Duck’s Rare Pink Feathers

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Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As anyone who’s ever seen a peacock or a hummingbird can attest, birds are some of this planet’s most magnificent inhabitants. Their feathers are highly specialized and often dazzling. Scientists have a good idea about the ways many of those beautiful feathers came about, but others remain a mystery. Now, at least, one feather question has been answered. In a paper published this week in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances, researchers explain the source of the pink-headed duck’s lovely coloring.

Figuring this out was more complicated than you might think. As far as ornithologists can tell, the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) has been extinct for decades. The last living bird was seen in India in 1949. This is a blow to biodiversity, for sure, but it also makes it pretty hard to study the species. While some museums have taxidermic specimens in their collections, they’d generally prefer that those specimens remain intact. It’s the same puzzle facing scholars of ancient manuscripts: The objects of study are both scarce and fragile. Nobody wants to destroy a manuscript or a rare specimen just to find out what makes it tick. 

So zoologists Daniel Thomas and Helen James got creative. They scanned a preserved pink-headed duck from the Smithsonian Institution using a technique called Raman spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy is a pretty simple process in which scientists shine a laser on their sample and analyze the way the light scatters. 

The pink-headed duck gave up its secrets under laser light. The bird’s rosy head feathers were colored by carotenoids, a type of naturally occurring pigment. Carotenoids are responsible for the pink in flamingo feathers and the red of a cardinal’s wing, but such colors are nearly nonexistent in the duck family. In fact, there’s only one other pink-feathered species of waterfowl: the pink-eared duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus).

"Working with the pink-headed duck specimen was an incredible privilege," Thomas said in a press statement. "While the extinction of the pink-headed duck has not been explicitly confirmed, it has sadly not been seen alive now for many decades. The duck specimen was a physical and somber reminder of extinction, but I was grateful that the study skin had been preserved in the collections at the Smithsonian Institution. This gave us an opportunity to make new natural history discoveries that emphasize the value of other living species." 

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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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Focus Features

If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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technology
This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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iStock

Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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