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Lessons learned from woodpeckers may help prevent head injuries

In an effort to reduce head and brain injuries in people, scientists are studying an entirely different species altogether. Researchers believe that their studies of how woodpeckers manage to avoid head injuries despite their rapid pecking may hold the key to better head protection for people. It is hoped that such modified protective devices can help decrease the number of head injuries that humans suffer when they bang their heads in motor vehicle accidents or sporting events.

Woodpeckers move their heads very fast when they peck, traveling as fast as 20 feet per second and exposing their beaks and heads to a force 1,000 times greater than gravity. Despite the speed and force, the birds somehow avoid significant injury. Researchers have examined woodpeckers using slow motion photography while the birds used their beaks to peck at a sensor that measured the force of their impact. This revealed that woodpeckers often alter how the force of their pecks is transmitted to their heads by turning slightly before impact.

Scientists also made computer models of woodpecker skulls and analyzed the differences in bone density of different portions of their heads to better understand how the birds survive without significant head injuries.

This helped them determine how a bone's looping around the birds' skulls helps to protect their heads against the impact of their pecks, as well as how differences in proportion between the top and bottom portions of their beaks helps distribute the force of the blows to minimize damage. They also learned that some bones in woodpeckers' skulls have a sponge-like quality, which was also a factor in providing protection to their brains.

Researchers hope to use these lessons in ways that can help people avoid the lasting effects of traumatic head and brain injuries.

Source: BBC News, "How woodpeckers avoid head injury," Jason Palmer, Oct. 27, 2011

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