Insulation is an essential component of nest structure that helps provide incubation requirements for birds. Many species of waterfowl breed in high latitudes where rapid heat loss can necessitate a high energetic input from parents and use down feathers to line their nests. Common eider Somateria mollissima nest down has exceptional insulating properties but the microstructural mechanisms behind the feather properties have not been thoroughly examined. Here, we hypothesized that insulating properties of nest down are correlated to down feather (plumule) microstructure. We tested the thermal efficiency (fill power) and cohesion of plumules from nests of two Icelandic colonies of wild common eiders and compared them to properties of plumules of wild greylag goose Anser anser. We then used electron microscopy to examine the morphological basis of feather insulating properties. We found that greylag goose down has higher fill power (i.e. traps more air) but much lower cohesion (i.e. less prone to stick together) compared to common eider down. These differences were related to interspecific variation in feather microstructure. Down cohesion increased with the number of barbule microstructures (prongs) that create strong points of contact among feathers. Eider down feathers also had longer barbules than greylag goose down feathers, likely increasing their air-trapping capacity. Feather properties of these two species might reflect the demands of their contrasting evolutionary history. In greylag goose, a temperate, terrestrial species, plumule microstructure may optimize heat trapping. In common eiders, a diving duck that nests in arctic and subarctic waters, plumule structure may have evolved to maximize cohesion over thermal insulation, which would both reduce buoyancy during their foraging dives and enable nest down to withstand strong arctic winds.
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