Here’s How Head-Banging Woodpeckers Avoid Getting a Concussion Everyday


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Woodpeckers can be found hammering their heads on tree trunks all day, using their beaks to create holes and digging insects from those holes for food. The birds’ distinctive drumming and drilling had led researchers to hypothesize that the bone between woodpeckers’ beak and braincase must absorb shocks to protect their brain from concussions. A new study has shown that this is not the case. Their head and beak are like a stiff hammer.A shock-absorbing system can be used to cushion the brain for maximum pecking performance.

“What this bird has to do during the entire day is dig holes into the wood. It’s very important that this business be very efficient,” explains Sam Van WassenberghThe study was conducted by Dr. Xavier Bruijn, an evolutionary biomechanicist from the University of Antwerp, Belgium. The woodpecker can absorb some of the energy it directs at a tree. This means that less energy is transferred to the tree trunk and the woodpecker has to work harder to make holes. “So the more you think about it, the less it made sense that there was any shock absorption going on,” Van Wassenbergh says. “But it had to be tested.”

Researchers from Canada and Europe used high-speed video to examine the actions of three species woodpeckers. They tracked the motion of different parts of the woodpeckers’ head as the birds hammered the trees and hypothesized that if there was any cushioning going on, it could be confirmed by detection of slower deceleration of the braincase in comparison with the beak upon impact with the wood. But that’s not what the team found. Instead, the head behaved as a stiff hammer with very little dampening. The results were astounding. This report was published on July 14, 2009. Current Biology.

Previous work in the 1970s had examined this question from a theoretical perspective, but this study is the first to capture high-speed video to determine how much force is being loaded onto the woodpeckers’ bill and separately onto their brain, says neurobiologist Dan Tobiansky, who studies woodpeckers at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and was not involved in the study.

How can woodpeckers prevent concussions from happening? Researchers created simulations that calculated the impact on the brains, and compared it to the thresholds for concussion causing forces in humans. For people, an impact of about 135 g’s produces a concussion. Woodpeckers are much smaller. Van Wassenbergh says that their brains are about seven times longer than a human’s. This means they can withstand seven times more force. Based on the models, the forces woodpeckers’ brain sustains are below the danger threshold by a factor of two. So “they could hit the tree at higher speeds and still not suffer a concussion,” he says. “The key is that the head of the woodpecker is just much smaller than that of a human.”

Tobiansky points out that the brain injury chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE), is more common in football players who are subject to repeated subconcussive blows. Subconcussive shocks can cause brain damage, so woodpeckers might have some physiological mechanisms to protect their brains from repeated subconcussive traumas. The work of Tobiansky and his colleagues suggests that steroid hormones such as androgens and estrogens may have protective effects on the birds’ brain.

It is still not clear what the physiology of brain protective devices looks like. The woodpecker braincase does not seem to be a good example for helmet design. Perhaps a crustacean, which is a member of an animal group that is skilled in hardening exteriors, could provide more insight into how to proceed.

The distinctive feature of bigclaw snappeping shrimp is its uniqueness Alpheus heterochaelis, a small coastal marine crustacean that lives in tropical and subtropical waters, is its snapping claw—a weapon the territorial animal frequently uses to battle invaders and defend its home. It is made up of a plunger with a hole and a latch mechanism. The plunger travels through the hole at a blistering pace. The jet of water that is released causes the area to become low pressure and where the jet becomes a bubble. The so-called cavitation balloon collapses, causing a snapping sound as well as a brief flash of light. However, the snapping claw produces a high-amplitude pressurewave that can cause damage in soft tissues like the brain.

The shrimp fights with each other, snapping within a centimeter to their opponent. Brain damage can be caused by the pressure waves of the snaps.

A team of researchers at the University of South Carolina and the University of Tulsa have now revealed these snapping shrimps’ How to cope with the constant assault. They are equipped with a transparent, gogglelike structure, known as an “orbital hood,” which covers their eyes and protects their brain from the pressure waves. Current Biology published the findings of the researchers on July 5.

“There’s been tons of work on the evolution of weapons and relatively little work on ‘How do you defend against them?’” says Melissa HughesThe study was not conducted by, who is a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The question is especially interesting in this instance because the weapon snaps, which can be dangerous to both the shrimp and its opponent. “And so you need double protection—protection from others coming at you but also from your own use of the weapon,” she explains.

Researchers removed some of the animal’s orbital hoods in order to understand how snapping shrimp handle shock waves from rivals and their claws. The researchers exposed the hoodless shrimps and other shrimp to shock waves. They discovered that they were disoriented and lost control of their limbs. This could be a sign of brain damage. These problems were not seen in intact animals that had been exposed to shock waves. They displayed normal behavior.

The researchers next used tiny sensors to measure pressure inside and outside the orbital hoods while the shrimp were being exposed to snaps. The orbital hoods reduced the intensity of shock waves by half, according to the researchers. “When we have an animal that has their helmet on, it’s pretty effective at dampening those shock waves, so we get less energy reaching the brain underneath the hood,” explains Alexandra Kingston, a biologist at the University of Tulsa and the study’s lead author. But when the hood is removed, the shock waves reach the brain at full strength, which translates into “no hood means no protection.”

How, exactly, are the goggles so effective at protecting the animals’ brain? Kingston and her coworkers hypothesized that a shockwave forces water out the orbital cover, transferring it’s energy to water expended down and away from animals instead of through their tissues.

The team tested this idea by gluing snapping shrimp’s goggles to the orbital cover. This kept water from escaping the hood. The team found that when these shrimp were exposed to a shock wave, it propagated through the sealed goggles and hit the brain as if the orbital hood wasn’t really there. This proved that brain protection depends on being able to expel water from below the orbital cover.

The researchers believe that the discovery of how these helmets function could lead to the development of equipment that can protect people from traumatic brain injuries. An explosion can cause brain damage that is irreparable to an innocent bystander. Mild traumatic brain injuries is one of the most common types that can occur in military personnel. Even armored vehicles are not immune to shock waves. “They go right through them,” explains Dan SpeiserSenior author of the study and a visual ecologist at The University of South Carolina, was

Woodpeckers and snapping shrimp are “the two animals that seem to risk brain damage all day, every day,” Speiser says. However, the biomechanical and physiological tricks they use to protect their brains could inspire engineering or medical solutions that can prevent brain injury in soldiers and athletes.


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