Hammer Time

Woodpecker study reveals the secret behind the birds' astonishingly hardy skulls

They’ve simply evolved to take frequent blows to the head.

Robert Shadwick & Erica Ortlieb (University of British Columbia)

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But woodpeckers, on the other hand, effortlessly withstand repeated impacts without bashing their skulls.

One prevailing explanation is that their skulls absorb shock, like a helmet, to help the birds avoid concussions and other injuries.

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Instead, the researchers compare woodpecker heads to solid hammers, which give them the power to penetrate trees with considerable force.

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Erica J. Ortlieb (University of British Columbia)

Here’s a pileated woodpecker slamming its beak into the wood in slow motion.

Robert Shadwick & Erica Ortlieb (University of British Columbia)

Christine Böhmer (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel) and Anick Abourachid (Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle)

Then, the researchers wanted to get a closer look at the spongy bone between woodpecker beaks and skulls — a prime candidate for shock absorption.

Erica Ortlieb & Robert Shadwick (University of British Columbia)

The top animation shows a solid woodpecker head, and the bottom shows one with a shock-absorbing center. Notice how the bottom one doesn’t penetrate the wood as deeply.

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In order for woodpeckers to efficiently peck into wood, the whole head has to remain pretty solid during impact, the researchers observed.

So, that spongy bone isn’t absorbing shocks as much as previously thought.

Instead, it appears woodpeckers just evolved to take blows to the head much more easily than humans.

Robert Shadwick & Erica Ortlieb (University of British Columbia)

Their tiny skulls and brains can withstand much more pressure than ours, meaning that it's harder for the birds to give themselves concussions.

Sam Van Wassenbergh (Universiteit Antwerpen)

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The hardness of a surface and the speed of pecking could also influence how much force a bird could take, researchers write.

But as for everyday drilling and drumming, woodpeckers seem to have evolved to take the pressure unlike any other group of birds.

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