Why don't woodpeckers get headaches?

3 November 2011

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Category: Research & medical benefits

woodpecker.jpgHow do woodpeckers avoid injury to their brain as their beak hits a tree at seven metres per second and up to 100 times per minute? That’s the question researchers interested in brain injuries have been asking and now, using high-speed photography and CT scanners, they have some answers.

Researchers studied the great spotted woodpecker, found throughout Europe and Asia and the most common woodpecker in Britain. This species experiences forces of up to 1,000 G when pecking at a tree trunk, without suffering any ill-effects.

CT-scans of the bird’s head revealed 'sponginess' of the bone at different places in the skull and unequal lengths of the upper and lower parts of the beak. The scientists believe these features work together to prevent impact injury. They suggest this combination may be useful in guiding design for new protective headgear.

Brain injuries represent the leading cause of death among young adults in the west. Understanding what happens when a skull is subjected to extreme forces – like those in a car crash – is important in the design of protective systems. This research might also have a contribution to make to the design of protective headgear.