London: Experts may have come one step closer to explaining the evolution of ornamental feathers in birds.
Dr Sampath Seneviratne of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and Professor Ian Jones of Memorial University in St John’s, Canada, reckon birds may use their feathers to touch and feel their surroundings.
The two ornithologists based their research on both crested and whiskered auklets and found that the birds bumped their heads 2.5 times more often if the feathers on their heads had been artificially flattened.
Dr Seneviratne told the BBC, "without the aid of the crest, naturally long-crested individuals had more head bumps than short-crested individuals.”
Dr Seneviratne also observed: "Birds that live in complex, cluttered habitats and are active at night tend to have a greater probability to express such facial feathers. We found a highly significant correlation for the observed trend."
The pair suggested that the original purpose of the feathers may have been to provide sensory feedback about the surrounding environment, possibly warning them against bumping into burrow ceilings, tree branches and undergrowth.
Feathers around the face would prove especially useful, as they might stop a bird damaging vital organs, such as eyes, eardrums, nostrils and bill, the experts suggested.
Dr Seneviratne added: "We describe the first comparative evidence for this widespread but entirely overlooked sensory function of long facial feathers. We argue that this provides a hitherto missing explanation for the origin of ornamental feathers.”
The findings were published in the journal Animal Behaviour.