In the fall sometimes you can see feathers lying on the ground that birds have shed when they start their winter molt. They're really pretty remarkable -- intricate, strong, and beautiful. I think the most interesting ones are the small covert feathers, the kind with a bit of down at the base of the shaft, and then flat above that. The idea that they evolved from reptile scales -- as did our hair -- is pretty amazing.
There's a new article I just discovered about how the evolution of feathers played a key role in birds being able to fly.
Dr Jakob Vinther, from the University of Bristol's Schools of Biological and Earth Sciences, said: "We are starting to get an intricate picture of how feathers and birds evolved from within the dinosaurs. We now seem to see that feathers evolved initially for insulation. Later in evolution, more complex vaned or pinnate feathers evolved for display.
"These display feathers turned out to be excellent membranes that could have been utilised for aerial locomotion, which only very late in bird evolution became what we consider flapping flight. This new research is shedding light not just on how birds came to fly, but more specifically on how feathers came to be the way they are today -- one of the most amazing and highly specialised structures in nature."
If you look closely, you can see that the individual barbs interlock, which makes a nice, tight surface that's helpful for insulation and for flying. Here's a good post on the anatomy of a feather.
And not only are they useful, they're beautiful -- and contribute to some spectacular birds:
Here's a whole gallery of them.
And now you know how the flower got its name.
There -- isn't that better than politics?