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Sandgrouse feathers have an uncanny ability to retain water

By using high resolution microscopes and 3D technology, a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has managed to capture an unprecedented view of the feathers of sandgrouse – a type of desert-dwelling birds that can gather water and carry it to their nest for distances of over 20 miles. These birds’ uncanny ability to hold water while flying with a speed of nearly 40 mph was found to be possible due to the singular architecture of their feathers, and could inspire the design of more efficient absorbent materials.

“It’s super fascinating to see how nature managed to create structures so perfectly efficient to take in and hold water,” said study co-author Jochen Mueller, an assistant professor of Smart Materials and Design at Johns Hopkins. “From an engineering perspective, we think the findings could lead to new bio-inspired creations.”

The experts examined the microstructure of sandgrouse’s belly feathers through a combination of scanning electron microscopy, microcomputed tomography, light microscopy, and 3D videography. 

The investigation revealed that the feathers’ components are optimized in several ways to hold and retain water, including how they bend, how the barbules (tiny filaments projecting from feathers) form protective tentlike clusters when wet, and how minuscule tubular structures within each barbule capture water. Moreover, each feather was found to hold water through a forest of barbules near the shaft, while working together with the curled barbules near the tip that act almost like caps.

These findings could underpin future engineering designs that require controlled absorption, secure retention, and easy release of liquids, such as netting for collecting and retaining water from fog and dew in desert regions, or water bottles that would prevent annoying swishing and sloshing. Such bottles could include an inner feather-like system keeping the water from swinging around while someone moves with it, a design which would be particularly appreciated by runners. 

Finally, these discoveries could inspire the development of next-level medical swabs that can efficiently soak up liquid, while making it much easier to release than in the case of currently available swabs.

The study is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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