Woodpeckers Provide Scientists with Clues on Brain Injury Prevention

Posted August 11th, 2014 at 8:15 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Red Headed Wood Pecker (Noel Pennington/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Red Headed Woodpecker (Noel Pennington/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Sounding like a miniature jackhammer in overdrive, a quiet morning’s peace is suddenly interrupted by bursts of loud, rapid tapping.  It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that the intense and precise tapping is actually the sound of a woodpecker using his beak to search for his breakfast – usually insects or tree sap – in a neighboring tree.

Some ornithologists (scientists who study birds) estimate that a woodpecker can peck at a tree at speeds of up to 20 pecks per second or 1,200 per minute. Scientists say that a woodpecker’s brain is able to withstand g-forces of 1,200 G’s from the repeated impacts and deceleration brought on by this rapid pecking.

That’s a lot of physical stress for any living creature to bear.  Yet, for woodpeckers, it’s a necessity for survival.

Did you ever wonder how these hardy little birds are able to endure this seemingly punishing routine day after day without injuring themselves?

Chinese scientists thought studying how a woodpecker can regularly tolerate such severe physical impact may also provide some insight into what it would take to protect our bodies from harm that’s caused by shock and vibrations due to high-velocity impacts, such as an automobile accident.

The research team, led by Wu Chengwei at the Dalian University of Technology in northeastern China, decided that the best way to learn how a woodpecker’s body can function as an anti-shock structure was to build a cutting-edge, high-precision 3D model of the bird.

First data from extensive CT scans of a woodpecker’s body were fed into a computer that had been programed with specialized software to create their unique and detailed models.

This is a schematic of the pecking process of a woodpecker (a) and (e) are moments of readiness to peck; (b) and (d) are the moments of departure and return, respectively; (c) is the moment of collision; arrows on the beaks show velocity direction. (©Science China Press)

This is a schematic of the pecking process of a woodpecker (a) and (e) are moments of readiness to peck; (b) and (d) are the moments of departure and return, respectively; (c) is the moment of collision; arrows on the beaks show velocity direction. (©Science China Press)

Tests conducted with the computer models revealed that the creature’s body not only helps support it as it pecks on a tree, it also absorbs and stores most (99.7%) of the energy generated by the repeated impacts in the form of strain energy.  The amount of remaining impact energy (.3%) that actually enters the brain is significantly reduced.

The researchers also said that various features in the bird’s head, such as its beak, skull, and hyoid bone (a special bone that’s supported by muscles instead of other bones) further reduce most of the remaining the strain energy that may be absorbed by the brain.

Whatever small amount of impact energy that remains and enters the brain is gradually transformed into heat, said the researchers.  This heat caused by the remaining impact energy causes the bird’s brain temperature to quickly rise, which is why woodpeckers peck at the tree in one rapid burst, pause momentarily and resume with another burst of pecking.

Professor Wu and his colleagues outlined their findings in a new study that was recently published in the Beijing-based journal Science China Technological Sciences.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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One Response to “Woodpeckers Provide Scientists with Clues on Brain Injury Prevention”

  1. Cranksy (USA) says:

    It seems as likely that this study will provide insight into how to protect bodies and brains from the possible harm of participating in soccer and American football as automobile accidents.