These Eyelashes Are Not Eyelashes

The title suggests Magritte has escaped from his exhibition  at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is writing this week’s post. Recently, in the Bali Bird Park near Ubud, Indonesia I saw a remarkable hornbill bird from Africa with what looked like eyelashes; really looked like eyelashes.  Yes, of course I know that eyelashes are limited to mammals and that they are hairs made up of alpha keratins, and that birds do not have alpha keratins, and that feathers have beta keratins. I have known that since I was a resident in Howard Baden’s laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Howard is interested in many aspects of skin biology and chemistry, and I was a junior researcher there, dodging the X-ray diffraction beams and studying  the patterns of human epidermal keratins and their associated lipids. Howard had hundreds of grams of desquamated snake skin in the  laboratory for his comparative keratin research.

Ground Hornbill "Eyelash" photo ©
Ground Hornbill “Eyelash” photo ©

Many hornbill species have tiny cylindrical eyelid feathers that mimic eyelashes and serve the function of eyelashes  — keeping foreign material from the eyes.  In hornbills it is suggested that they may also serve as mini-hats, shielding the eyes from sunlight.

It is unknown, but unlikely, whether many of our readers have seen the “Hunger Games,” in which Effie Trinket, who escorts  the female tributes, has feather-like eyelashes.  This has started  a fashion trend in those many generations younger than this blogger, and Effie, her clothes, and the eyelashes, will surely be featured on some trick-or-treaters. Applying those feather-like eyelashes is harder than one might expect, so leave yourself enough time.

Thinking about this blog for the past year, I recognize that hair, feathers, and birds appear as topics more than would be randomly expected. Why is that? I can see at least two reasons: my early experience in Howard Baden’s laboratory and growing up in Brooklyn, within walking distance to Prospect Park and its zoo, where my eyes and mind could contemplate the wondrous  skin and appendages of many zoo animals. Certainly an ideal upbringing for someone who spends  his personal and scientific life searching out the wonders of the natural world.

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