Press Releases

Bird feather research uncovers lessons for engineering – University of Reading

Release Date : 16 December 2009

Groundbreaking research from the University of Reading suggests that previously unrecognised structures in birds’ feathers could hold the key to improvements in the materials used in the construction, automotive and aircraft industries.


The study, carried out in collaboration with colleagues in South Africa, looked at how feathers were constructed, and in particular at the keratin fibres within the main feather shaft. Feather keratin is an extremely tough material, which is very similar to the major constituent in hair, nails and hooves. The team used fungi to degrade material surrounding the fibres, allowing their structure to be seen for the first time.


One of the most important findings was the discovery of tiny hooks that act in a very similar way to the reinforcement bars in concrete, used in bridges, office buildings and houses. However, unlike the reinforcement bars, the hooks have extra gripping power to prevent damage to the feather shaft which could be replicated in engineering technology.


Dr Richard Bonser, Lecturer in Biomimetics in the School of Construction Management and Engineering, said: “Biomimetics is all about using good design in nature and developing new products.


“Our findings show that there is real potential to take the feather hook design and adapt it for use in engineered materials, and in particular to develop composite materials that are much tougher and have stronger bonding powers. This is a great example of nature knowing best!”


The results of this research project have just been announced in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published by the Royal Society, which will be celebrating its 350th anniversary during 2010




For more information please contact Rona Cheeseman on 0118 378 7388, email


Notes to editors

Dr Richard Bonser is available for interview. Please contact the press office to arrange.


This research, Selective biodegradation of keratin matrix in feather rachis reveals classic bioengineering by Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, Richard H. C. Bonser and James Wesley-Smith, is published in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B. The paper will be available online at  from 16/12/09, and the digital object identifier (DOI) number will be: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1980.

Copies of the full text will be available from the University of Reading communications office on request.


Theargarten Lingham-Soliar works at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (formerly of University of Reading), in Biological and Conservation Sciences, and James Wesley-Smith at the EM Unit, University of KwaZulu-Natal.


The Centre for Biomimetics at Reading was founded in 1992. It was the first Centre in the UK to bring together engineers and biologists, under one roof, to develop new biologically inspired technologies. Researchers in the Centre enjoy excellent collaborative links with both other universities and industry worldwide. One current project, with partners around the EU, is currently developing a robot inspired by the octopus. The Centre is also home to the global Biomimetics Network for Industrial Sustainability (BIONIS), giving unrivalled access to information on cutting-edge developments in the field.


University of Reading:

The University of Reading is rated as one of the top 200 universities in the world (THE-QS World Rankings 2009).


The University of Reading is one of the UK’s top research-intensive universities. The University is ranked in the top 20 UK higher education institutions in securing research council grants worth nearly £10 million from EPSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, AHRC and BBSRC. In the RAE 2008, over 87% of the university’s research was deemed to be of international standing. Areas of particular research strength recognised include meteorology and climate change, typography and graphic design, archaeology, philosophy, food biosciences, construction management, real estate and planning, as well as law.


Standards of teaching are excellent - the University scored highly in the National Student Survey 2009.  87% of Reading students responding to the survey stated they were satisfied with the quality of their course.


The University is estimated to contribute £600 million to the local economy annually.


University of Reading is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.


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