Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

Woodpeckers: The Advantage of a Small Brain

Evolution News
Photo credit: Shenandoah National Park.

How do woodpeckers absorb a remarkable amount of shock to the head — 1200 to 1400 g — for each hit on a tree? A football player, by comparison, might absorb 120 g without damaging his brain. The answer could help minimize brain damage in humans. Suggested explanations include a surplus of tau proteins (2017), an unusual bone in the tongue, and head movements that minimize brain damage.

A new research team challenges such explanations, saying that their data show that woodpecker heads “act more like stiff hammers” and that “any shock absorbance would hinder the woodpeckers’ pecking abilities.” But then what about the bird’s brain?

While the deceleration shock with each peck exceeds the known threshold for a concussion in monkeys and humans, the woodpeckers’ smaller brains can withstand it. [Sam] Van Wassenbergh says that woodpeckers could make a mistake, for instance if they were to peck on metal at full power. But their usual pecking on tree trunks is generally well below the threshold to cause a concussion, even without their skulls acting as protective helmets.

“The absence of shock absorption does not mean their brains are in danger during the seemingly violent impacts,” says Van Wassenbergh. “Even the strongest shocks from the over 100 pecks that were analyzed should still be safe for the woodpeckers’ brains as our calculations showed brain loadings that are lower than that of humans suffering a concussion.” 

CELL PRESS, “WOODPECKERS’ HEADS ACT MORE LIKE STIFF HAMMERS THAN SAFETY HELMETS” AT SCIENCE DAILY (JULY 14, 2022); THE PAPER IS OPEN ACCESS.

Van Wassenbergh is explicit that he considered the “shock absorber” theory refuted:

The findings refute the long-held theory of shock absorption, which has been popularized in the media, books, zoos, and more, says Van Wassenbergh. “While filming the woodpeckers in zoos, I have witnessed parents explaining to their kids that woodpeckers don’t get headaches because they have a shock absorber built into their head,” he says. “This myth of shock absorption in woodpeckers is now busted by our findings.

CELL PRESS, “WOODPECKERS’ HEADS ACT MORE LIKE STIFF HAMMERS THAN SAFETY HELMETS” AT SCIENCE DAILY (JULY 14, 2022); THE PAPER IS OPEN ACCESS.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Evolution News

Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.

Share

Tags

brainbrain damagebrain sizefootballneurosciencepecksSam Van Wassenberghshock absorbancetau proteinstonguewoodpeckers