Avian integument is thin, elastic, and loosely attached to the body, giving birds the freedom of movement needed for flight. Its epidermis is both keratinized and lipogenic, and the skin as a whole acts as a sebaceous secretory organ. The skin is covered by feathers over most of the body, but many birds show colored bare skin or integumentary outgrowths on the head and neck. Heavily cornified epidermis covers the beak, claws, spurs, and the scales on the legs and feet. These structures (except the back of the leg and underside of the foot) contain beta-keratin like that in reptilian scales. Most birds have sebaceous secretory glands at the base of the tail and in the ear canals. Feathers are the most numerous, elaborate, and diverse of avian integumentary derivatives. Their diversity is due to the possibilities inherent in their basic plan of a shaft with two orders of branches and the use of modified beta-keratin as a strong, light, and plastic building material. The evolution of feathers in birds has been accompanied by the development of complex systems for producing colors and patterns, the innovations of feather arrangement and follicles with their musculature and innervation, and the process and control of molting.
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Vol. 40 • No. 4