Pileated Woodpecker, head-banging without the head ache
In any head-banging match, be it man or beast, few competitors can compare with the noble woodpecker. The Man in this story is the creator of the football helmet. The beast is the amazing Woody the woodpecker. Woody has the ability to withstand tremendous blows to the head while pecking holes in trees for food or shelter. The pecking is always at high speed and it is the envy of all those who use their heads in sports, be they soccer players or football players. The high instance of brain damage for athletes brings the science of woodpeckers into focus.
Woody’s ability to withstand these repeated blows has fascinated scientists for decades, and the interest isn’t just academic. If humans could replicate the woodpecker’s impressive anti-shock mechanism, there are applications of the technology well past the playing field. The area of research has piqued the interest of car and airplane manufacturers, who want to help clients in the case of land or air collisions.
Scientists have been aware that woodpeckers have different skulls than other birds, but according to the Audubon Society, until now, they’ve had a poor understanding of how the woodpecker’s anatomy actually protects its brain. New research from as far away as China puts humans one peck closer to unlocking the secret. In the labs of Dalian University of Technology have used computer tomography (CT) scans of woodpeckers to construct a detailed, digital model of its body. They used software to simulate the bird’s intense pecking—a process that can force the woodpecker’s head to endure up to 1500 g-force units, which is 300 times the g-force of the typical roller coaster.
The Chinese study shows that the key to the woodpecker’s survival lies in how it converts the energy it absorbs. When a woodpecker strikes a tree, the impact energy—energy that is released during a collision—is converted to strain energy in the body. Too much strain in the head can be catastrophic, but the woodpecker’s incredible anatomy—including a specialized beak and skull—redirects most of the strain into the rest of the body, instead of the head. The study indicates that 99.7 percent of the strain energy is converted in the woodpecker’s body, and only 0.3 percent is converted in the head. This small amount of strain is quickly dissipated from the head in the form of heat. This process protects the brain from damage, but causes temperatures inside the skull to rise quickly, meaning woodpeckers have to take frequent breaks while they’re pecking. In this way, the woodpecker’s whole body is involved in the fight to protect its brain from damage.
Understanding this energy dissipation technique could be big for engineers, particularly those who work with football helmet manufacturers, athletes, and coaches, as well as those allied with transportation companies. Greater understanding of one of the world’s most collision-resistant animals could help humans build better safety features for our athletes and passengers in the future.
Many non-scientists have said that it would be better to study the Big Horn Sheep, known for their canyon echoing head-butting prowess, in the design of football and lacrosse helmets. That power distribution approach has not worked for down-linemen, who experience thousands of head-to-head collisions with team mates and opponents in the course of a career. However, its worth noting that any animal comparison has its limitations.
A woodpecker’s skull seems to function differently from humans in its use of blood pressures in the neck of the bird. By studying the process of our friend, Woody, scientists may be able to simulate the cushioning of the head and help humans with the dissipation of heat that is built up in our collisions. The neck, afterall, is what hold our heads in place. While purists are loath to see yet more body covering of pads for athletes, if a neck protector stops the life-threatening damage of concussions, it could be a blessing.
Thanks to Woody, we may have a safer way forward.