Author explores evolutionary path of feathers

Conservation biologist Thor Hanson speaks to library director Susan Barnes Whyte following a reading and discussion of his latest book “Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle” on Oct. 10 in Nicholson Library. Joel Ray/Photo editor

A conservation biologist asserted that feathers are one of the greatest evolutionary objects, as they extend to many different aspects of life, from fashion to fly-fishing to bird watching.

These statements were part of Thor Hanson’s author reading Oct. 10, which focused on his recent book, “Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.”

The book outlines these different uses for feathers and shows how they are unique evolutionary pieces because of their wide range of uses.

While there have been books written about many evolutionary topics, Hanson said that he was drawn to feathers because of how they work their way into so many different areas of life.

“Many things in nature have been beautifully adapted to one aspect of life, but not like the varieties of fields feathers have been used in,” Hanson said.

During the writing process, Hanson said he interviewed everyone from biologists to anthropologists to feather-clad showgirls in Las Vegas.

“There’s a surprising depth to human fascination with feathers,” Hason said. “And there’s something unique about how people study and sense and use feathers. We’ve adopted them for so many uses.”

Hanson’s personal interest in feathers had roots in a college trip to Kenya. Hanson’s group studied the feeding hierarchy of vultures, which entailed collecting multiple animal carcasses to use for vulture feeding observation.

Hanson reached into a rotting zebra intestine, and it exploded all over his shirt, face and hair. It was difficult for him to separate the intestines from his hair, which made him wonder how blood interacted with the feathers of meat-eating vultures.

After some personal experiments with feathers and animal intestines, Hanson said he realized that the intestines were more difficult to remove from the intricate feathers than they were from human hair.

He said that this explains why scavenging birds, such as vultures, don’t have feathers on their heads.

Hanson said that part of the adventure of writing his book was learning how to combine science and creative writing into a story that would be true to both fields.

“For me to get into the book world, I had to take the back door,” Hanson said. “I had to travel through a corridor that deserves more traffic. There’s such an importance of storytelling in science.”

Joanna Peterson/
Managing editor
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