Scientists Reverse-Engineer Woodpecker Skulls For Better Helmets
Scientists are looking to the complex skulls of woodpeckers to help devise better crash helmets for humans.
Improved headgear could help prevent devastating brain injuries, which account for 15 percent of all fatalities and disabilities and represent the leading cause of death in young adults.
"The annual incidence rate of head-impact injuries in traffic accidents, falls, assaults and sports activities are very high in the world," said researcher Yubo Fan, a biomechanist at Beihang University in Beijing.
Woodpeckers can strike trees at speeds of 13 to 15 miles per hour (21 to 25 kilometers per hour) about 12,000 times per day, on average, without sustaining any brain injury.
"It is a miracle in nature," Fan told InnovationNewsDaily.
To see how these birds protect their noggins, scientists recorded pecking using two synchronized high-speed video cameras, with a sensor used to measure the peck force. They also scanned the birds' skulls to create 3-D simulations based on bone volume, thickness and density, in order to model the effects of pecking forces on their heads.
"Woodpeckers are difficult to maintain in cages because of their wildlife habits and feeding behaviors," Fan explained. "It rejected any food in the cage in the beginning. We had to set worms in cracks of wood to feed it. Later, it adapted itself to the environment, and we became good friends. It then pecked wood and even the metal cage the metal cage was broken after pecking for a week. If we didn't find the broken cage in time, it might have escaped."
The researchers discovered that several features of the bird's beak and head bones were crucial for resisting head injuries. These included the relative sponginess of the bone at different places in the skull and a relatively long layer of tissue covering the upper beak, all of which helped absorb shocks.
Future helmets could mimic aspects of woodpecker head anatomy, such as its spongy bone, Fan suggested.
The scientists detailed their findings online Oct. 26 in the journal PLoS ONE.
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