How Woodpeckers' heads don't explode

Everyone hates on the Ig Nobel awards, but I think they are pretty cool. It is a lot of science that would go totally unrecognized. Just because it has no practical relevance whatsoever doesn't mean it isn't cool. Take this work on how woodpeckers cushion their heads so that they don't get hurt when drilling into trees:


Last fall, [Ivan] Schwab [from UC Davis] was honored with an Ig Nobel award, the irreverent version of the Nobel Prize, for his research on how woodpeckers avoid headaches, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Along with their straight-as-an-arrow strikes at the tree, which safeguards against head trauma, birds' bodies are designed to absorb the impact.

One millisecond before a strike comes across the bill, dense muscles in the neck contract, and the bird closes its thick inner eyelid. Some of the force radiates down the neck muscles and protects the skull from a full blow. A compressible bone in the skull offers cushion, too.

Meanwhile, the bird's closed eyelid shields the eye from any pieces of wood bouncing off the tree and holds the eyeball in place.


Bird brains also remain rigid during head banging. Injuries to the human head make our brains bounce back and forth in the cerebral spinal fluid, bathing the organ. But woodpeckers have virtually none of this fluid.

I want special cushioning eyelids and low amounts of CSF. I keep walking into the door of my office, and I think it would help.


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Granted, this is a "popular press" article about science, so it's necessarily simplistic, but it would have been nice for the authors to have avoided using the phrase " are designed to ...". It feeds right into the standard Behe talking point of "appearance of design == evidence of design".

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 10 Jan 2007 #permalink

I like the Ig Nobels.

By Ian Findlay (not verified) on 10 Jan 2007 #permalink