One of many nice pleasures of winter is listening for drumming woodpeckers. Their loud tattoos ringing out on a frigid, in any other case silent northern panorama fill me with hope that winter will ultimately come to an finish whilst I marvel on the diversifications that enable these splendid birds to slam their faces into stable wooden.
Pure choice would clearly favor physiological and morphological modifications defending woodpeckers from concussions and long-term mind harm. However pure choice should additionally favor diversifications making their percussive pecks as loud as potential and their hammering as highly effective as potential to dig out bugs deep within the wooden and excavate nesting and roosting cavities. The necessity for each safety and energy would appear to be diametrically opposed.
Historically, folks have been extra targeted on under- standing diversifications that shield woodpecker brains than those who make them such mighty hammerers. Certainly, some engineers have included parts of woodpecker anatomy into soccer helmet designs. Probably the most-read articles on BirdWatchingDaily.com, written by the late Eldon Greij in 2013, is titled “Why woodpeckers can hammer with out getting complications,” an outline of the methods scientists have speculated that woodpecker anatomy protects the mind.
However how well-protected is a woodpecker’s mind? In a follow-up column in 2021, “Understanding potential mind harm in woodpeckers,” Greij checked out a 2018 examine out of Boston College medical faculty by which researchers examined woodpecker and blackbird mind tissue for the protein related to continual traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in soccer gamers who had suffered repetitive traumatic mind accidents. They discovered that eight of the ten woodpeckers examined examined constructive for that protein, hyperphosphorylated tau, which can be implicated in another non- reversible, degenerative situations in people, resembling dementia, Alzheimer’s illness, and Parkinson’s illness. Not one of the 10 Crimson-winged Blackbird brains examined confirmed proof of that protein. May woodpeckers have developed a biochemical mechanism to counteract the results of it?
Now, a brand-new examine revealed in Present Biology reveals, through extraordinary slow-motion pictures, that the woodpecker invoice and cranium are designed to work as a single unit, a “stiff hammer to boost pecking efficiency, and never as a shock-absorbing system to guard the mind.” particular markers, the examine established that the invoice and head stopped at precisely the identical second, each experiencing the identical drive of impression. Hypothesis that one thing between the invoice and skull serves as a shock absorber doesn’t maintain up.
After my son was in a motorbike accident, I examined his helmet. The outer shell was cracked, however the inside cushioning had protected his head towards damage, in contrast to his unprotected physique. It could be that, as Greij wrote in his 2013 article, a lot of the safety for a woodpecker’s mind is because of what lies beneath the cranium, probably involving neck muscular tissues, some a part of the exceptionally well-developed hyoid equipment that helps the lengthy tongue by wrapping across the cranium, and lowered house within the skull to lower the possibility of the mind “sloshing round,” precisely as a helmet should match snugly to guard an athlete or bicycle owner towards head accidents.
We’ve got no approach of asking woodpeckers how they really feel after drumming, so asking why they don’t get complications could also be based mostly on a defective assumption. We do know that they’ll have pretty lengthy lives: a banded Pileated Woodpecker is understood to have survived not less than 12 years, 11 months, and two banded Furry Woodpeckers have lived over 15 years. How woodpeckers not simply survive however apparently thrive with the identical protein of their brains associated to life-shortening situations in people is a crucial query for each ornithologists and medical researchers.
The brand new examine, establishing simply how exquisitely designed for highly effective hammering a woodpecker’s physique is, accomplishes what the most effective scientific analysis does: it leaves us with extra new questions and avenues for analysis than easy solutions. And this examine does one thing extra. Watching the researchers’ slow-motion video of a Pileated Woodpecker placing wooden, recorded at 1,600 frames per second and proven at 30 frames per second, is as superb and pleasant as it’s enlightening.
Watch a video from the woodpecker examine
Gradual-motion clips of high-speed movies of head impression throughout pecking by Nice Noticed, Pileated, and Black Woodpeckers. The video illustrates the anatomical landmarks that had been tracked within the kinematic evaluation. Credit score: Present Biology/Van Wassenbergh et al