News
News Home
Quick Bites
Exploradio
News Archive
News Channel
Special Features
NPR
nowplaying
On AirNewsClassical
Loading...
  
School Closings
WKSU Support
Funding for WKSU is made possible in part through support from the following businesses and organizations.

Akron General

Knight Foundation

Meaden & Moore


For more information on how your company or organization can support WKSU, download the WKSU Media Kit.

(WKSU Media Kit PDF icon )


Donate Your Vehicle to WKSU

Programs Schedule Make A Pledge Member BenefitsFAQ/HelpContact Us
Science and Technology




Exploradio - Blue Penguins and other mysteries
Feather researchers in Akron use fossil evidence to determine coloring of an extinct dinosaur and make a new discovery along the way
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Blue penguin chicks from Phillips Island, Australia. The blue color comes from light scattered by nano-structures in their feathers. These structures are unique to penguins.
Courtesy of M. Kuhn, creative commons
Download (WKSU Only)
In The Region:

Books on dinosaurs tend to paint them in fanciful colors, from Barney purple to day-glo orange.  Now scientists can tell artists the true colors of at least one extinct dinosaur.   

In this first installment of Exploradio, a weekly series exploring science and innovation in Northeast Ohio, we look at how researchers at the University of Akron started off studying penguins and ended up with a picture of a dinosaur …

Exploradio - Blue penguins

Other options:
Windows Media / MP3 Download (4:56)


(Click image for larger view.)

Little Penguins are native to Australia and New Zealand. 

They’re the smallest penguin species, which is why they’re called Little Penguins, but they’re unique in another way… in the right light they’re an iridescent blue - which why they’re also called Little Blue Penguins.

And it turns out the feathers of the Little Blue Penguin produce the blue color in a way that is different from any other blue bird –

Matthew Shawkey is a biology professor at the University of Akron who studies feathers – he says that the blue color we see in Blue Penguins and other birds is a trick played on our eyes by the way their feathers reflect light –

“There’s no blue pigment in a bluebird for example, or a blue jay, or an indigo bunting or any of these other birds, they’re made by light scattering in these nano structures.”

These nano structures, very small bundles of the protein Beta Keratin on the surface of the feather,  reflect light in such a way that the bird appears blue.  And Shawkey says there are two ways that this structure works  -  at least there were two known ways until he and his team looked at Blue Penguins and discovered a third type of blue feather.

 “the mechanism is actually the same, it’s coherent light scattering…”

Shawkey is fond of food analogies – he says the structures in the first type look like grapes, the second cooked spaghetti , and the newly discovered third structure looks like…

“Uncooked spaghetti so, just straight linear fibers that you can imagine a fist full of uncooked spaghetti and looking down on it, that’s more or less what they looked like.”

It was actually his research partner Liliana D’Alba who made the discovery.

“First thing I thought was it was a very beautiful structure to see in the microscope because most of the samples I had seen before that, they were kind of boring.”

But why were they looking at penguin feathers to begin with…?

Shawkey and Alba made their discovery of the unique blue color of Blue Penguins as an offshoot of another penguin project looking at larger color-producing structures in feathers called melanosomes. 

Melanosomes contain packets of melanin, something  almost all animals have, including people, that produces skin color, freckles…even red hair or green eyes.

“So we were working on a project were they had fossilized melanosomes in this giant penguin which is an ancestor of modern penguins, about 36 million years old.”

Yes, a giant penguin.  It’s called Incayacu paracasensis, stood 5 feet tall and lived in what is now Peru. 

By comparing its melanosomes to modern penguins they discovered that this extinct giant did not wear a typical penguin tuxedo.   It was reddish brown with a gray underside.

Then Shawkey and his team looked at colors in birds of another feather,  and …

“we were able to build a model where we could predict color from shape of melanosomes pretty accurately.”

That’s when a colleague showed them melanosomes from a feathered dinosaur. 

Birds are descendants of dinosaurs.  Scientists believe feathers evolved early on in dinosaurs for reasons other than flying- perhaps for insulation, courtship, or defense -  and birds eventually split off.  Even the famous, and ferocious, velociraptors from Jurassic Park are believed to have been covered with feathers.  New fossils from China preserve details of dinosaur feathers that include imprints of melanosomes.

In Akron, Shawkey was able to match his database of melanosomes from living birds to show the true colors of an extinct dinosaur.

Anchiornis, or “near-bird”, was discovered in China in 2009.  About the size of a crow, Anchiornis was a much better runner than flyer, despite being feathered from head to toe.

And now for the first time, we know what a dinosaur looked like -  a red crest with black wings and body and dramatic flashes of white feathers.

Shawkey says the discovery satisfies another creative longing –

“We’ve been taught since elementary school that we’re never know the colors of dinosaurs and when you look in a dinosaur book it’s just made-up, there’s a little bit of science behind it, but for the most part it’s where the dinosaur illustrator gets to be creative.”

Matthew Shawkey’s exploration of fossil feather colors and the discovery of a new type of blue in Blue Penguins taught him another lesson –   that we may not know as much as we think we do.

“Keep testing your assumptions is what you really need to do -  you have a set of assumptions that you work with in your daily life as a scientist but then whenever you get an opportunity to test those assumptions its always worth doing.”

Shawkey says in science, as in everyday life, just because you think you know something, doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises waiting to be discovered….


Related Links & Resources
U. of Akron - Blue Penguin page

U. of Akron - feathered dinosaur webpage

Wired Science on the Giant Penguin

Little Blue Penguin at the Cincinnati Zoo

Giant penguin feathers

Add Your Comment
Name:

Location:

E-mail: (not published, only used to contact you about your comment)


Comments:




 
Page Options

Print this page

E-Mail this page / Send mp3

Share on Facebook





Stories with Recent Comments

Kasich's gubernatorial ad focuses on his blue-collar roots
John Kasich is the biggest con-man in America. He will say one thing and then do the opposite. He is terribly successful at fooling the public and he is worki...

Some cab drivers in Cleveland refuse to promote Gay Games
the irony is that most americans distrust or hate muslims much more than they hate gays!! silly ignorant bigots-GO HOME!!!

New transportation companies come to Cleveland
Ride-sharing companies are breaking laws and regulations every day. From regulatory fee evasion to use of smartphone while driving (and even two smartphones(!) ...

Cleveland anti-poverty agency executive resigns amid financial probe
That committee won't be too independent. He plans to stay on until after the new appointee is chosen.

How can you wipe a criminal record clean?
Great article! NO CLINIC in May 2014, however, because it's graduation month for students For the next dates of the FREE Legal Clinic to help with Expungment,...

Drilling remains suspended while ODNR investigates NE Ohio earthquakes
Flaring and lights, so has all been halted? Also, smell of HS2 and sounds of an auger/drilling/water rushing underground. So, has all been halted? In light of t...

Will the Ohio River carry fracking wastewater?
Texas $ vs. WV citizens . Who will our governor listen to?

McKinley museum launches campaign to buy 'pawned' heirloom
Was the tiara sold or pawned? What is the name of the person who brought the tiara to the Gold

Ohio Supreme Court allows Stark County sheriff on the May ballot
Too bad they never got rid of Swanson, even after national exposure of the abuses at the jail. Maybe the abuses will stop now...

Copyright © 2014 WKSU Public Radio, All Rights Reserved.

 
In Partnership With:

NPR PRI Kent State University

listen in windows media format listen in realplayer format Car Talk Hosts: Tom & Ray Magliozzi Fresh Air Host: Terry Gross A Service of Kent State University 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. NPR Senior Correspondent: Noah Adams Living on Earth Host: Steve Curwood 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. A Service of Kent State University