If you have been to a conference where I am at, either speaking or asking questions, you have undoubtedly heard me mention woodpeckers.  Usually after I ask the question or bring up the topic there is laughing.  I don’t know if the laughing is because of the concept or the laughing is because they think I am an idiot (the later would not be completely out of line).

Well, I guess I may have been ahead of the curve; I cannot claim full credit on the thought as Jonathan Lifshitz, PhD and I had a discussion about a year ago about the woodpecker.  A Chinese scientist has looked more in-depth into this animal as it relates to concussions, via theStar.com;

“These findings would be applied to human protective devices such as sports helmet designs,” says Yubo Fan, a bioengineer at Beijing’s Beihang University and the senior study author.

Fan says woodpecker skulls have evolved with several varied layers of protection that allow them to absorb the fierce — up to 1,000 G — forces of their occupation.

And, he says, some of these anatomical traits may well be translatable into helmet features.

The study was released Wednesday by the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.

Of interest was what anatomical features the small bird had that may be preventing brain injury.  There were three identifiable features that may be worth looking into:

  1. Lower beak is longer: directing impact forces away from the brain
  2. Skull casing was different: uneven/spongy plates making it stronger
  3. Special bone: surrounds the skull and acts like a “restraint” (image below)

This study is not the first of its kind, rather one of the first gaining traction in the media.  It is not a novel concept to wonder how a very small bird would be able to function after deliberately performing an action that could cause a brain injury.  In fact one of the first study was in 1979.

Here are some more examples;

Obviously this information is in its infancy even though P.R. May et all brought it to the scientific literature in 1976.  However it does show some promise on its surface, but it remains that can an external feature on a helmet stop the brain from moving?  It is most likely not possible but the fact that we have some information from nature gives us all a reason to keep on looking for answers;

Toronto neurologist Dr. Charles Tator, an anti-concussion crusader, says physicians have long wondered how woodpeckers avoid brain damage.

“It is always a medical curiosity why woodpeckers can withstand the huge forces and humans can’t,” he says.

Tator says any information from nature that could lead to a better helmet would be welcome.

However, he says, a helmet-based “seatbelt” for the head would not likely protect human athletes from concussion.

Keeping the head in place would not stop the brain within from bouncing around in reaction to an impact, he says.

“It doesn’t matter how tightly something external is supplied to the head as long as what’s inside the head is still jiggling,” he says.

A biomechanist also agrees with Tator;

University of British Columbia biomechanics expert and helmet maker Peter Cripton agrees with Tator, but says the woodpecker study might still be useful for people trying to create safer headgear.

Cripton, who developed a new football helmet at the school, says that the woodpecker skull structures that dissipate force away from the brain might well be incorporated into safer equipment.

“We could possibly simulate some of the energy-shunting characteristics of the skull, if that is, in fact, what’s different between woodpeckers and humans,” he said.

“I’m interested in any and all approaches to improving a helmet’s ability to prevent concussion.”

But Cripton also says that woodpeckers may also have more robust brain cells that can simply resist injury better than their human counterparts.

I will look forward to the laughs I get, but possibly that will give someone the impetus to continue research or look into the other animals I get laughs from; the ramming animals like deer, elk, etc.




10 thoughts on “Woodpeckers

  1. Lou Memoli October 27, 2011 / 09:08

    I don’t think that this is a laughing matter. We can learn from nature. Recently I started thinking about Bighorn Sheep. When fighting over territorial disputes, mating rights, and herd heirarchy, they square off and use their heads as weapons. The force of impact is intense and I wonder why these creatures do not suffer from brain injury. Has anyone studied these animals to see how nature has built in a protection for them? It could give us some clues in designing concussion prevention equipment.

  2. Eric Nussbaum, MEd, ATC, LAT October 27, 2011 / 09:28

    Dustin, we’ve chatted about the woodpeckers before, but don’t overlook the big horn sheep as well. besides the difference in bony structure, a key that may be getting overlooked is the differences in neck strength and development between both species and humans. Woodpeckers and big horn sheep have incredibly developed neck musculature.

    I read one study which showed that less then 10% of HS football players engage in consistent neck strengthening. We did a pole of our HS members in NJ and found that of those who do neck strengthening, the primary mode of strengthening was shoulder shrugs! We are missing the boat! When you take a young, skeletally immature person, and put a 5 pound helmet onto their 5-6 pound head, fatigue them and they essentially become like a bobble head doll. The anterior neck musculature which is about the size of your little finger, and is under developed in most Hs players, has to work overtime trying to stabilize the neck. Complicate this picture with a lack of general fitness, core and errector strength and we can have issues. I realize that some of the studies linking neck strength with concussion outcome have shown that it has little or no impact, but were they looking at the right variables? at the right training? What was their mode of neck strengthening? Did they incorporate full body, rotational and eccentric training into their training regime? I still think we can learn from the animal models and do a better job of developing athlete’s neck musculature. Strengthing the surrounding musculature helps for every other problem in sports, why not with the brain?

    All that being said….isn’t the real answer to teach kids not to use their heads to tackle?

    I look forward to the new designed helmet with a beak shaped facemask and seat belt attachment that loops over the head!

    Good stuff as always.

    • Eric Nussbaum, MEd, ATC, LAT October 27, 2011 / 09:40

      One additional thought…if you look at the vertebral alignment of the woodpecker, it appears to be kyphotic in nature with a distinctive pivot point lower down the chain. I would assume that this was to allow the neck to be pulled forward to strike. In contrast, the human spine has a lordotic curve, and neck flexion occurs higher up on the C spine.w/ some neck flexion occuring at C1-2, and the bulk of flexion occuring throughout the rest of the C spine. The woodpecker looks to have a distinctive pivot point that may be controlled eccentrically by back musculature, which may have some biomechanical advantaged positioning??? The upper three vertebrae have posterior processes while The lower cervical vertebrae seems a bit bigger and perhaps a prominent anterior process which may indicate greater load transmission. I’m not an ornithologist, but besides the seatbelt bone, neck structure is also distinctive.

      • Lou Memoli October 28, 2011 / 08:26

        I understand how strengthening the neck muscles can make for a more powerful, controlled hit without neck/spine trauma but the fact remains that the brain still sloshes within the cranium when the hit occurs. I don’t know if woodpeckers’ brains are floating in CSF but I suspect that this is the case for all mammals, including bighorn sheep… even though they have those big horns that may act somewhat as a shock absorber. But if you’ve ever seen these animals battle on TV, you can see that they are butting heads with tremendous force. So the question remains, how are these animals protected from concussion and can we learn anything from it?

  3. Tommy Dean October 27, 2011 / 11:20

    Makes sense! There’s a lot to learn here.

  4. Mark October 27, 2011 / 20:43

    Hmm, the lower jaw disperses forces. Nice job Woodhead.

    • Dustin Fink October 27, 2011 / 20:50

      That would be lower beak, completely different structure Mark… Wake up stop trolling…

  5. Don Brady, PhD, PsyD October 28, 2011 / 00:14

    As I am experiencing a flight of ideas re these presenting issues, perhaps the following 3 questions also need to be scrutinized:

    1- How much wood can a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker can peck wood?

    2- Maybe the woodpecker is already brain damaged and that is why the bird keeps pecking away?

    3- Where is Woody Woodpecker when you need an accurate reporter/informant?

  6. Mark October 29, 2011 / 08:49

    Beak, jaw. Now your an expert on birds to. Wow

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