Art meets science: UNT students and faculty combine their talents to find out what bird feathers reveal about air quality

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 12:32
Moulted chicken feathers mounted for outdoor exposure
Moulted chicken feathers mounted for outdoor exposure

DENTON (UNT), Texas—The University of North Texas Departments of Studio Art, Geography and the Environment, and Biological Sciences are exploring how birds can offer insight on air pollution.

The two-year study is one of the first to use bird feathers as biomonitors of soot in the air. Biomonitors allow scientists to determine both the amount and the potential effects of a substance accumulated in or on an organism. The UNT study is also among a growing number of scientific research projects to incorporate the arts and sciences.

The multidisciplinary team wanted to determine if and to what extent the microstructure of birds’ interlocking feathers would accumulate atmospheric black carbon, commonly known as soot, to help scientists measure the amount of the substance in the air we breathe. Black carbon is invisible to the naked eye and is a major contributor to climate change and poor air quality. It is generated mostly from the burning of fossil fuels and plant material.

Department of Geography and the Environment Associate Professor Alexandra Ponette-González and Undergraduate Research Fellow Claire Pitre collected feathers moulted from chickens and developed a laboratory protocol to remove existing soot and other organic material from the feathers. Pitre then mounted the 59 feathers onto large screens that were then installed on campus near highly trafficked Interstate 35 and a busy bus stop. Working with University Distinguished Research Professor Dornith Doherty and Anna Lee, an Undergraduate Research Fellow from the Department of Studio Art, the screens were designed to not only secure the feathers, but also to serve as an exhibit that would attract interest from people walking nearby.

“Collaborating with an artist makes science more accessible to the public,” said Pitre “It’s a challenge to try to explain global warming and atmospheric pollution. Having a visual makes the science real for people. They can relate to it.”

The feather screens were left in place for five days while video cameras documented the exposure 24/7. Doherty created a time lapse sequence that dramatically demonstrates the exposure of the feathers and unaware pedestrians to heavy traffic and buses.  

“How do we make the invisible, visible,” asked Doherty? “How do we best communicate this environmental issue? Sometimes we smell vehicle emissions, but we’re so dependent on our sight to identify problems that creating a visual helps us interpret the research in a very different, tangible way.”

            Once the feathers had been exposed, Doherty and Lee photographed the feathers under a scanning electron microscope to capture the deposits of black carbon on the feathers. Lee also created pottery using a special method called raku where pieces are removed from the kiln while at bright red heat and placed into containers with combustible materials that burn patterns onto the ceramics.

            “I’ve never done this with bird feathers before,” said Lee. “But I had this epiphany – bird feathers and the carbon residue that’s left on them – I can literally leave a carbon imprint on the ceramic’s surface that represents our enclosure in the Earth’s atmosphere. The work contributes to the research as opposed to being something that is just aesthetically pleasing and helps people digest the science.”

            The preliminary results show that bird feathers may be good biomonitors for measuring atmospheric soot. All the feathers accumulated measurable amounts of black carbon with the feathers near the highway accumulating approximately eight times more soot than the feathers near the bus stop. The group presented these findings in a recent art and science exhibition, “POLLUMAGE.”

“I think part of the richness of this research was how mentoring one another informed our practices individually and as a group,” said Ponette-González. “This was an incredible opportunity to work with three other women and experience how this kind of collaboration changes and enriches the way we do both science and art.”

The research project also was supported by Associate Professor of Geography Matthew Fry and Associate Professor of Biology Jeff Johnson and funded by several grants through UNT’s Office of Faculty Success, College of Visual Arts and Design Scholarly and Creative Activity Award, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Small Grant, and Departments of Studio Art and Geography and the Environment.


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