Rat-a-tat-tat. A bird jams its beak into a tree trunk 20 times per second. Seems like a formula for neck and brain injuries—or at least a whopper of a headache. Yet woodpeckers can do this all day, no problem. Could woodpeckers’ skulls yield insights for human protective gear?
Researchers at the University of California study the skull and tongue bone structures of woodpeckers. (Yep, tongue bone!) They say a woodpecker’s head moves toward a tree trunk at 23 feet per second. Every time beak strikes bark, the head stops. Scientists say each impact happens at 1,200 times the force of gravity (g).
Think of it this way: If a woodpecker fell from a tree (don’t worry, God designed self-balancing tailfeathers and strong claws), it would fall at the rate of 1 g. Yet a bird’s schnozz hits the tree 1,200 times harder than that . . . over and over with no concussions or brain damage.
Sports fans hear plenty about concussions. (See “Concussions: What’s Happening Behind the Eyes.” ) A concussion is a form of serious brain injury caused by a blow to the head. Concussions happen frequently in contact sports like football or soccer. The National Football League says concussions in football players occur at 80 g. So how do woodpeckers survive repeated 1,200 g impacts without brain damage?
Researchers examined the secrets of the woodpecker’s ability to take a licking and keep on pecking. They found that woodpecker skulls have unique impact-absorbing features. This includes specialized skull bones, beaks, and tongue bones.
For example, woodpecker bones have more minerals than, say, chicken bones. That makes them stiffer and stronger. The woodpecker skull is harder and tougher at the same time.
Apparently, that hard-tough combo lessens the amount of impact on the brain during pecking. There’s also less fluid between a woodpecker’s brain and skull than in other animals. Having less fluid around the brain helps limit the motion of the brain too—like how a hard-boiled egg yolk doesn’t get damaged by shaking but an uncooked yolk breaks.
Then there’s the woodpecker’s tongue bone. It helps the bird extract insects from trees. The unusual tongue wraps around the back of the skull and anchors at the front between the eyes. This design lets the tongue and its bone act as a spring and dampen the effect of the pounding.
Scientists hope to discover other features of the bones, tissues, or cells in woodpeckers. Perhaps someday secrets from a bird brain will help protect and heal human injuries.