How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury, Segment 1: The Question


[MUSIC PLAYING] Have you ever wondered how
woodpeckers avoid brain injury when they peck? They have to peck pretty
hard, because what they’re trying to do is get at
little bugs and insects beneath the bark of the tree. One theory is that they have
a special foam-like material between their brain
and their skull that’s a little like the foam
liner in a bicycle helmet. I’m Lorna Gibson. I’m a professor of Material
Science and Engineering at MIT and I study the mechanical
behavior of foams. I’m also a birdwatcher. And so when I heard
that woodpeckers might have some special
foam-like material to protect their
brains from injury, I had to look into this. A group of neurologists
in California who study brain
injury in humans also were interested
in the woodpeckers and how they avoided
brain injury. They got a dead woodpecker
and dissected the head. But, unfortunately, they
didn’t find anything. There is no foam-like material
that protects their brain. At this point, I got even more
interested in the question. How do they protect their
brains against brain injury when they peck? We’ll look at the mechanics
of it in a minute. But first, let’s
take a field trip and look at a few woodpeckers. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re at Harvard University
at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This is one of the great natural
history museums of the world. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re in the Ornithology
Department here. And the Ornithology
Department has something like
400,000 specimens, representing 80% of
the birds of the world. They have everything
connected to birds. They have mounted specimens. They have drawers
full of specimens. They have skeletons. They have nests. They have eggs. It’s really a truly
incredible collection. So we’re going to use
the collections here at the Museum of Comparative
Zoology to look at woodpeckers and to try and understand
how they avoid brain injury when they peck. We’re going to be
looking at things like the skulls
of the woodpeckers and the orientation of
the brain in the skull, and we’ll use this
information to understand how the woodpecker
avoids brain injury. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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