Biomechanics of the peafowl’s crest reveals frequencies tuned to social displays
PLoS ONE , Volume 13 - Issue 11
Feathers act as vibrotactile sensors that can detect mechanical stimuli during avian flight and tactile navigation, suggesting that they may also detect stimuli during social displays. In this study, we present the first measurements of the biomechanical properties of the feather crests found on the heads of birds, with an emphasis on those from the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus). We show that in peafowl these crest feathers are coupled to filoplumes, small feathers known to function as mechanosensors. We also determined that airborne stimuli with the frequencies used during peafowl courtship and social displays couple efficiently via resonance to the vibrational response of their feather crests. Specifically, vibrational measurements showed that although different types of feathers have a wide range of fundamental resonant frequencies, peafowl crests are driven near-optimally by the shaking frequencies used by peacocks performing train-rattling displays. Peafowl crests were also driven to vibrate near resonance in a playback experiment that mimicked the effect of these mechanical sounds in the acoustic very near-field, reproducing the way peafowl displays are experienced at distances ≤ 1.5m in vivo. When peacock wing-shaking courtship behaviour was simulated in the laboratory, the resulting airflow excited measurable vibrations of crest feathers. These results demonstrate that peafowl crests have mechanical properties that allow them to respond to airborne stimuli at the frequencies typical of this species’ social displays. This suggests a new hypothesis that mechanosensory stimuli could complement acoustic and visual perception and/or proprioception of social displays in peafowl and other bird species. We suggest behavioral studies to explore these ideas and their functional implications.