Young's modulus varies with differential orientation of keratin in feathers

J Struct Biol. 2003 Aug;143(2):118-23. doi: 10.1016/s1047-8477(03)00142-4.


Feathers are composed of a structure that, whilst being very light, is able to withstand the large aerodynamic forces exerted upon them during flight. To explore the contribution of molecular orientation to feather keratin mechanical properties, we have examined the nanoscopic organisation of the keratin molecules by X-ray diffraction techniques and have confirmed a link between this and the Young's modulus of the feather rachis. Our results indicate that along the rachis length, from calamus to tip, the keratin molecules become more aligned than at the calamus before returning to a state of higher mis-orientation towards the tip of the rachis. We have also confirmed the general trend of increasing Young's modulus with distance along the rachis. Furthermore, we report a distinct difference in the patterns of orientation of beta-keratin in the feathers of flying and flightless birds. The trend for increased modulus along the feathers of volant birds is absent in the flightless ostrich.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / anatomy & histology
  • Feathers / chemistry*
  • Geese
  • Keratins / chemistry*
  • Pliability
  • Species Specificity
  • Struthioniformes
  • X-Ray Diffraction


  • Keratins