Fault bars in bird feathers: mechanisms, and ecological and evolutionary causes and consequences

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Abstract

Fault bars are narrow malformations in feathers oriented almost perpendicular to the rachis where the feather vein and even the rachis may break. Breaks in the barbs and barbules result in small pieces of the feather vein being lost, while breaks in the rachis result in loss of the distal portion of the feather. Here, we provide a comprehensive review of 74 papers on fault bar formation in hopes of providing a clearer approach to their study. First, we review the evidence that the propensity to develop fault bars is modified by natural selection. Given that fault bars persist in the face of survival costs, we conclude that they must be an unfortunate consequence of some alternative adaptation that outweighs the fitness costs of fault bars. Second, we summarize evidence that the development of fault bars is triggered by psychological stress such as that of handling or predation attempts, and that they persist because the sudden contractions of the muscles in the feather follicle that control fright moults also causes the development of fault bars in growing feathers. Third, we review external and physiological (e.g. corticosterone) agents that may affect the likelihood that an acute stress will result in a growing feather exhibiting a fault bar. These modifying factors have often been treated as fundamental causes in the earlier literature on fault bars. Fourth, we then use this classification to propose a tentative model where fault bars of different severity (from light to severe) are the outcome of the interaction between the propensity to produce fault bars (which differs between species, individuals and feather follicles within individuals) and the intensity of the perturbation. This model helps to explain contradictory results in the literature, to identify gaps in our knowledge, and to suggest further studies. Lastly, we discuss ways in which better understanding of fault bars can inform us about other aspects of avian evolutionary ecology, such as the physiology of moult, the integration of moult into avian life cycles, and the strategies used to minimize stress during moult. Moreover, the study of fault bars may be relevant to understanding the aerodynamics of flight and the early evolution of flight.

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