Measuring Spatially- and Directionally-varying Light Scattering from Biological Material

Todd Alan Harvey1, Kimberly S. Bostwick2,3 and Steve Marschner4

1Department of Biomedical Sciences, 2Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 3Museum of Vertebrates, and 4Department of Computer Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Journal of Visualized Experiments 75: 50254, 2013.

DOI 10.3791/50254

Featured feather data and visualization software deposited in the Dryad Digital Repository

DOI 10.5061/dryad.332b5


Light interacts with an organism's integument on a variety of spatial scales. For example in an iridescent bird: nano-scale structures produce color; the milli-scale structure of barbs and barbules largely determines the directional pattern of reflected light; and through the macro-scale spatial structure of overlapping, curved feathers, these directional effects create the visual texture. Milli-scale and macro-scale effects determine where on the organism's body, and from what viewpoints and under what illumination, the iridescent colors are seen. Thus, the highly directional flash of brilliant color from the iridescent throat of a hummingbird is inadequately explained by its nano-scale structure alone and questions remain. From a given observation point, which milli-scale elements of the feather are oriented to reflect strongly? Do some species produce broader "windows" for observation of iridescence than others? These and similar questions may be asked about any organisms that have evolved a particular surface appearance for signaling, camouflage, or other reasons.

In order to study the directional patterns of light scattering from feathers, and their relationship to the bird's milli-scale morphology, we developed a protocol for measuring light scattered from biological materials using many high-resolution photographs taken with varying illumination and viewing directions. Since we measure scattered light as a function of direction, we can observe the characteristic features in the directional distribution of light scattered from that particular feather, and because barbs and barbules are resolved in our images, we can clearly attribute the directional features to these different milli-scale structures. Keeping the specimen intact preserves the gross-scale scattering behavior seen in nature. The method described here presents a generalized protocol for analyzing spatially- and directionally-varying light scattering from complex biological materials at multiple structural scales.


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Feather reflectance data and visualization software featured in the video article


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The authors would like to thank Jaroslav Křivánek, Jon Moon, Edgar Velázquez-Armendáriz, Wenzel Jakob, James Harvey, Susan Suarez, Ellis Loew, and John Hermanson for their intellectual contributions. The Cornell Spherical Gantry was built from a design due to Duane Fulk, Marc Levoy, and Szymon Rusinkiewicz. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF CAREER award CCF-0347303 and NSF grant CCF-0541105).