Woodpeckers, it seems, are anything but bird brains.
In fact, their capacity to peck away at tree trunks — at speeds of seven metes a second — without incurring a head trauma, may hold the key to protecting our own fragile skulls.
Scientists investigating the behavior and physiology of woodpeckers say their findings may revolutionize the design of protective head gear for humans.
Led by Yubo Fan of Beihang University in Beijing and Ming Zhang of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the researchers used two high-speed video cameras to record the birds striking a sensor that measured their pecking power.
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Scans of the birds' heads offered up information on bone volume, thickness and density, and other “micro-structural parameters”, wrote London's Daily Telegraph.
Along with computer simulations, and the use of 3D models, the scientists discovered that a spongy, plate-like bone structure, along with unequal upper and lower beak lengths, served to protect the woodpeckers' brains from impact injury.
BBC Science reported that the birds do not have much "sub-dural space" between their brains and their skulls. This gives the woodpecker brain lesser room to “bump around” than the human brain.
The BBC reported:
A highly-developed bone called the hyoid — which in humans gives the "Adam's apple" — has also been studied: starting at the underside of the birds' beaks, it makes a full loop through their nostrils, under and around the back of their skulls, over the top and meeting again before the forehead.
This heart-shaped bone, writes The Toronto Star, acts as a “seatbelt to keep the brain in place”.
In their findings published Wednesday by the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One, the researchers said the shock absorption system was the result of “the combined effect of a number of different morphological features”, wrote The Daily Telegraph.
Thanks to evolution, Fan says woodpecker skulls have several layers of protection that allow them to absorb up to 1,000 G forces ??
Fan told the Toronto Star:
"Simple reasoning would indicate that if woodpeckers got headaches, they would stop pecking. These findings would be applied to human protective devices such as sports helmet designs."
But as the paper points out, in humans it's the movement of the brain inside the skull during impact that causes concussion – rather than the actual blow itself.
Toronto neurologist Dr Charles Tator told the Toronto Star that a helmet-based “seatbelt” for human heads was unlikely to prevent concussion.
"Keeping the head in place would not stop the brain within from bouncing around in reaction to an impact."
So while scientists may have cracked the mystery as to why woodpeckers don't suffer brain injuries, humans may be forced to keep on suffering.