Shelves: nature , art Heft this book, open it at random, and your first reaction might be, "Ah, a coffee-table book. Their unfeathered selves are real specimens that are posed in the act Heft this book, open it at random, and your first reaction might be, "Ah, a coffee-table book. Their unfeathered selves are real specimens that are posed in the act of flying, walking, or standing, even as they would have in life. The author hastens to assure us that "no birds were harmed" in the production of the book.

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The Unfeathered Bird: An Illustrated History of Avian Anatomy Evolutionary eccentricities, ornithological oddities, and the engineering mysteries of flight. By Maria Popova Birds are an incessant source of scientific fascination, from why they sing to how their wings work. What emerges is an illuminating and meticulously illustrated look at the brilliance of birds at the intersection of art, science and history, covering such intricate mysteries as how the ostrich lost two of its four toes and why the vulture diverged into radically different Old World and New World varieties.

The or so intricate drawings include a number of species never illustrated before and explore everything from the mechanics of flight to the aerodynamics of avian skulls. The skeleton needs to be of a lightweight structure, with large flattened surfaces for the attachment of muscles, and to have tremendous rigidity and the strength to support the entire weight of the animal while airborne.

The components are highly specialized and once a satisfactory blueprint has been achieved there is very little room for modification. The paradox, then, is that although the birds represent the largest class of all the vertebrates — approaching ten thousand species — they are fundamentally rather uniform; though with some very surprising variations!

The adaptation for flight is the most important factor behind the structure of birds and can provide an explanation for virtually all of their anatomical characteristics — even those that seem to have nothing to do with flying.

For example, with wings instead of front legs, birds need two strong hind limbs and a modified posture to balance on them. One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the divergence of vulture species between the New and Old World: The universal truths about vultures are, as every schoolchild knows, as follows: they have a bare head, a hooked beak, and long, broad wings, and they eat things they find dead.

Few definitions could be more cut and dried. All over the Americas, Europe, and Asia this very uniform group of birds can be instantly recognized and, on a group level at least, poses no problems of identification. So when, in the s, the newly developed techniques for hybridizing strands of DNA revealed that the New World vultures may not be vultures at all but close relatives of the storks, it created something of a sensation.

Indeed, to the average birdwatcher the concept seemed to symbolize the chaos that test-tube technology would drag their world into without the steadying hand of empirical common sense.

In fact, by the time the DNA experiments were taking place, it had already been around for over a hundred years, based on a range of complex anatomical features: the musculature of the wings, formation of the intestines, and so forth.

They are probably not, after all, stork relatives, and for the time being some authorities have tentatively returned them to the company of other hook-billed birds.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is not that New and Old World vultures may not be related but that two possibly unrelated groups of birds have come to look so alike. They differ externally only in the longer and functional hind toe of the Old World vultures and the open nostrils you can see right through from one side to the other of the New World vultures. This similarity is the result of a process called convergent evolution. So when different animal groups share the same ecological niche independently of one another there is a tendency for them to reinvent the wheel, finding the same solutions to the same challenges and ultimately coming to look very much alike.

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The Unfeathered Bird








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