While walking in the forest, we can often hear the characteristic sounds that woodpeckers make. By banging their beaks on the bark of trees, these birds inform the territory they have occupied or attract a partner. Have you ever wondered why they can do this for so long without suffering a concussion? A new analysis sheds more light on this fascinating but mysterious skill.
For years, scientists have wondered how woodpeckers can hit their heads against hardwood every day without harming themselves.
“When we see them at work, we start to think casually, which makes them okay,” said Sam Van Wasenberg, a researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and lead author of the study.
Over the years, there have been hypotheses that the woodpecker’s head acts as a helmet – it absorbs or dissipates shock. Or that there is something like a pillow in the head of this bird. However, it turns out that while the woodpecker’s safety secret is indeed anatomy, it may be something else entirely.
Like a hammer on wood
Regardless of whether they are looking for food, deterring opponents or tempting a partner, woodpeckers can drum tree bark at speeds of up to 20 beats per second. After this session, they behave quite normally.
To find out how to protect woodpecker brains from strikes, an international team of scientists decided to record birds belonging to three types of woodpeckers – black, striped and large.
“We traveled to four different zoos in Europe where woodpeckers live, and we recorded them as they pecked,” Van Wassenbergh said.
The researchers obtained 109 videos and analyzed them frame by frame for signs of consumption. Based on the collected data, a biomechanical model of the woodpecker’s skull was made, which scientists used to measure the forces that affect the heads of birds and how the brains of animals behave when clicking.
Video analysis showed that the woodpecker’s skulls do not have any mechanical shock absorption system, but when clicking, they behave not like a helmet, but like a solid hammer.
The simulations showed that adding a shock-absorbing component, and thus a shock absorber, would not help protect woodpeckers’ brains. If a few strokes were absorbed by their heads, the birds would not be able to act quickly and massively.
“It makes sense,” said Thomas Roberts, a biomechanical scientist at Brown University, who was not involved in the study. “If you hammer a nail, you don’t want to put cushions between these,” he added.
The answer to the question can be very simple
According to researchers led by Van Wassenbergh, woodpeckers protect against concussions mainly due to the small size of this organ – up to 700 times smaller than humans.
“We forget that woodpeckers are much smaller than us,” Van Wasenberg said, adding that smaller animals can take on more. “Just think of the flies that hit the window panes and then fly away,” he added.
Van Wasenberg added that his team’s research results do not mean that woodpecker-inspired research into shock absorbers and cushioning has depreciated. The analysis of bird brains and how they adapt to repeated strikes remains a fascinating topic that could lead to the development of valuable technological solutions.
“Time will tell whether our view holds,” Van Wasenberg noted. “I think our study provides strong evidence for many species and also explains the mechanism from an adaptive point of view, showing that shock absorbers would only have disadvantages for woodpeckers,” he noted.
Ars Technica, Current Biology, science.org
Main image source: stock struggle
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