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Woodpeckers minimize cranial absorption of shocks

      Highlights

      • Woodpecker heads behave very stiffly during in vivo pecking impacts
      • Shock deceleration of the braincase is not reduced relative to the beak
      • Absence of cranial shock absorption is adaptive to improve pecking performance
      • Inertial loading of woodpecker brains is below primate concussion thresholds

      Summary

      The skull of a woodpecker is hypothesized to serve as a shock absorber that minimizes the harmful deceleration of its brain upon impact into trees
      • Bock W.J.
      Kinetics of the avian skull.
      • Beecher W.J.
      Feeding adaptations and systematics in the avian order Piciformes.
      • Spring L.W.
      Climbing and pecking adaptations in some North American woodpeckers.
      • May P.R.A.
      • Fuster J.M.
      • Newman P.
      • Hirschman A.
      Woodpeckers and head injury.
      • Bock W.J.
      Functional and evolutionary morphology of woodpeckers.
      • Schwab I.R.
      Cure for a headache.
      • Oda J.
      • Sakamoto J.
      • Sakano K.
      Mechanical evaluation of the skeletal structure and tissue of the woodpecker and its shock absorbing system.
      • Zhu Z.D.
      • Ma G.J.
      • Wu C.W.
      • Chen Z.
      Numerical study of the impact response of woodpecker’s head.
      • Wang L.
      • Cheung J.T.-M.
      • Pu F.
      • Li D.
      • Zhang M.
      • Fan Y.
      Why do woodpeckers resist head impact injury: a biomechanical investigation.
      • Zhu Z.
      • Zhang W.
      • Wu C.
      Energy conversion in woodpecker on successive peckings and its role on anti-shock protection of the brain.
      • Liu Y.
      • Qiu X.
      • Zhang X.
      • Yu T.X.
      Response of woodpecker’s head during pecking process simulated by material point method.
      and has inspired the engineering of shock-absorbing materials
      • Wang L.
      • Niu X.
      • Ni Y.
      • Xu P.
      • Liu X.
      • Lu S.
      • et al.
      Effect of microstructure of spongy bone in different parts of woodpecker’s skull on resistance to impact injury.
      • Yoon S.-H.
      • Park S.
      A mechanical analysis of woodpecker drumming and its application to shock-absorbing systems.
      • Yoon S.-H.
      • Roh J.-E.
      • Kim K.L.
      Woodpecker-inspired shock isolation by microgranular bed.
      • Bian J.
      • Jing X.
      Biomimetic design of woodpecker for shock and vibration protection.
      and tools, such as helmets.

      Horstemeyer, M.F. (2017) Shock mitigating materials and methods utilizing spiral shaped elements. US patent US9726249 B2, filed May 5, 2012, and granted August 8, 2017.

      However, this hypothesis remains paradoxical since any absorption or dissipation of the head’s kinetic energy by the skull would likely impair the bird’s hammering performance
      • May P.R.A.
      • Fuster J.M.
      • Newman P.
      • Hirschman A.
      Woodpeckers and head injury.
      and is therefore unlikely to have evolved by natural selection. In vivo quantification of impact decelerations during pecking in three woodpecker species and biomechanical models now show that their cranial skeleton is used as a stiff hammer to enhance pecking performance, and not as a shock-absorbing system to protect the brain. Numerical simulations of the effect of braincase size and shape on intracranial pressure indicate that the woodpeckers’ brains are still safe below the threshold of concussions known for primate brains. These results contradict the currently prevailing conception of the adaptive evolution of cranial function in one of nature’s most spectacular behaviors.

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