Do Woodpeckers Get Concussions?

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Sarah Mattonen
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7.20

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Pecking puts a lot of force on a woodpecker’s brain. But scientists think woodpecker bodies are adapted to help keep them from being injured during pecking-related collisions.

Have you ever heard a woodpecker pecking? Using their beaks, these fascinating birds drill into trees to find food or to create a nest. Woodpeckers can peck a tree up to 20 times per second. They typically peck up to 12 000 pecks per day!

Pecking puts a lot of force on a woodpecker’s brain. In fact, this force is around 10 times greater than what would cause a concussion in humans. But for a long time, scientists have thought that woodpeckers don’t get headaches or concussions. Why is that?  

When a woodpecker strikes a tree, the striking creates a large force on its beak. A woodpecker’s anatomy is specifically designed to absorb this force and prevent the woodpecker from getting injured. Its specialized beak and skull direct most of the energy associated with this force into the rest of its body. This protects the brain and prevents concussions or injury.

The woodpecker head

There are several anatomical features that protect woodpeckers. First off, woodpeckers have a bony tongue-supporting structure that starts in its mouth, wraps around its skull, and attaches between the eyes. This is called the hyoid. It acts almost like a seatbelt around the brain. The hyoid absorbs some of the energy from the collision.

Woodpecker skull
Woodpecker skull (Source: Philip Henry Gosse via Wikimedia Commons).

Did you know?

A woodpecker’s tongue can be up to 3 times the length of its beak! This helps them reach insects within trees or holes.

The woodpecker brain

Impact injuries can happen when the brain moves around in the skull. Woodpeckers have relatively small brains which are packed very tightly inside their skulls. That means there is no space for the brain to move around in the skull and potentially get bruised.

Also, in impact injuries, the damage depends on how much area the force is being applied to. A woodpecker’s brain is oriented so that when it moves back and forth in the skull, a large area of the brain is hitting the skull. This means the force of the collision is being directed over a large surface area of the brain. This will cause less damage than if all of the force was directed at a single spot in the brain. Similarly, if you were to lay on a bed of nails, you wouldn’t be hurt. But if you were to step on one nail, you would be in a lot of pain!

Did you know?

A woodpecker has a third inner eyelid which prevents the eyeball from popping out when it pecks.

When the brain is really small, it has a high surface area to weight ratio. This is another way that helps spread the impact force over a much larger area, causing less damage. This is not what happens in the human brain. Since our brains are larger, when we receive an impact force it causes damage to that specific area of the brain.

Woodpecker brains are also surrounded by a thick, plate-like spongy bone. This characteristic of the bone help it absorb and lessen the force of the impact.

Bone surrounding woodpecker brain
Thick, spongy bone in woodpecker skull (Source: Wang et al. [CC-BY] via asknature.org).

Finally, the woodpecker always pecks its target in a direct straight line. This avoids any rotation or shearing on the brain. The anatomy is well designed so that a direct hit to the brain might not cause any damage.

Did you know?

Scientists are starting to use characteristics of woodpecker heads as inspiration for how to design helmets for human heads!  

So do woodpeckers never get hurt?

Unfortunately not. When it comes to getting hit or impacted due to other motions other than pecking in a straight line, woodpeckers are just as vulnerable as other birds. For example, woodpeckers are just as likely to get injured or killed from flying headfirst into a window as other birds are.

Also, thanks to recent research, scientists can’t be totally sure that woodpeckers don’t suffer any brain damage at all. According to a study published in 2018, woodpecker brains can contain a protein called tau. In human brains, tau is associated with brain damage. Scientists don’t fully understand how this protein works in human or bird brains. But this finding is a good reminder of how, in science, there are always more questions to ask!

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Concussions? (2016) from the PBS series “It’s Okay To Be Smart” (6:24 min.).

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Have you ever experienced a concussion? How did you feel immediately after the event? What was your recovery like?
  • Have you ever watched or heard a woodpecker pecking a tree? What was it like? 
  • Do you always wear a helmet when doing activities that could result in head injuries? Do you believe wearing a helmet is always necessary? Explain.
  • Do you know of anyone who has experienced a concussion? What were the effects on their daily life? Could the head injury have been prevented? How?
  •  

Connecting and Relating

  • Have you ever experienced a concussion? How did you feel immediately after the event? What was your recovery like?
  • Have you ever watched or heard a woodpecker pecking a tree? What was it like? 
  • Do you always wear a helmet when doing activities that could result in head injuries? Do you believe wearing a helmet is always necessary? Explain.
  • Do you know of anyone who has experienced a concussion? What were the effects on their daily life? Could the head injury have been prevented? How?
  •  

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Why has the topic of concussions and the prevention of concussions become more prominent in the media?
  • What do we know about concussions now that we did not know 50 years ago? What science and technology has contributed to our understanding of the effects of concussions? 
  • Is studying the intricacies of a bird’s skull a valid use of research funds? Explain.

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Why has the topic of concussions and the prevention of concussions become more prominent in the media?
  • What do we know about concussions now that we did not know 50 years ago? What science and technology has contributed to our understanding of the effects of concussions? 
  • Is studying the intricacies of a bird’s skull a valid use of research funds? Explain.

Exploring Concepts

  • How is a woodpecker’s skull adapted to prevent brain injury when it makes holes in trees?
  • What does a helmet do to help prevent a concussion? What features of a helmet are important to ensure it provides good protection? 
  • What proof is there that helmets work in reducing brain injuries? 
  • Similar to the spongy bone in a woodpecker’s skull, a human baby’s bones are mainly composed of soft and flexible cartilage when it is born. What is the purpose of this human developmental feature? 
  •  

Exploring Concepts

  • How is a woodpecker’s skull adapted to prevent brain injury when it makes holes in trees?
  • What does a helmet do to help prevent a concussion? What features of a helmet are important to ensure it provides good protection? 
  • What proof is there that helmets work in reducing brain injuries? 
  • Similar to the spongy bone in a woodpecker’s skull, a human baby’s bones are mainly composed of soft and flexible cartilage when it is born. What is the purpose of this human developmental feature? 
  •  

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • How does conducting research on the skull of a woodpecker contribute to scientific understanding?
  • Why are animal models, like woodpeckers, useful for scientific research? What are some typical animal models used in scientific research? How is an animal model selected for research purposes? (Note: This question will require some additional research)

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • How does conducting research on the skull of a woodpecker contribute to scientific understanding?
  • Why are animal models, like woodpeckers, useful for scientific research? What are some typical animal models used in scientific research? How is an animal model selected for research purposes? (Note: This question will require some additional research)

Teaching Suggestions

  • Teachers could use this article as an interesting introduction to the topic of concussions, the physics of concussions and/or the topic of animal adaptations, both structural and behavioural. 
  • After reading the article, students could complete a Key Ideas Round Robin activity. Students first summarize the key ideas from the article, then form pairs and finally groups of four to negotiate the key idea gained from article. Ready-to-use Key Ideas Round Robin reproducibles can be found in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Alternately, students could read the article and watch the embedded video Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Concussions? After reading and viewing, have students complete a Print-Video Venn Diagram Learning Strategy to collect and compare the key points made in each media format. Ready-to-use Print-Video Venn Diagram BLM can be found in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Teaching Suggestions

  • Teachers could use this article as an interesting introduction to the topic of concussions, the physics of concussions and/or the topic of animal adaptations, both structural and behavioural. 
  • After reading the article, students could complete a Key Ideas Round Robin activity. Students first summarize the key ideas from the article, then form pairs and finally groups of four to negotiate the key idea gained from article. Ready-to-use Key Ideas Round Robin reproducibles can be found in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Alternately, students could read the article and watch the embedded video Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Concussions? After reading and viewing, have students complete a Print-Video Venn Diagram Learning Strategy to collect and compare the key points made in each media format. Ready-to-use Print-Video Venn Diagram BLM can be found in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

Fun Facts About Woodpeckers (2018) 

Article from The Spruce giving facts about woodpeckers.

Woodpecker brains host protein linked with human brain damage (2018)

Article from Science News for Students about a protein found in woodpecker's brains that would indicate brain damage in humans.

Exploring the G force: Why woodpeckers don’t get concussions (2011)

Article from Science-Based Life on how woodpeckers are able to experience extreme G-forces without getting concussions.

References

Fisher, N. (2016, January 6). Bird brains: Why don't woodpeckers get concussions? Forbes.

Farah, G., Siwek, D., & Cummings, P. (2018). Tau accumulations in the brains of woodpeckers. PLOS ONE, 13(2). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191526

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