Scientists have been wondering this for quite a while. Why does a tiny bird who beats their beak and in turn their head repeatedly against hardwood not get whiplash or a severe brain injury and die from multiple concussions inflicted from its crazy pecking lifestyle?
According to scientists there are a multitude of reasons woodpeckers’ brains are protected but before we go into that let’s review what happens in to the brain a whiplash injury.
A whiplash TBI occurs when the brain literally gets pushed into the skull and then bounces off and hits the opposite side of the skull. This is called a coup countre coup motion. The force of an acceleration and deceleration is what causes the whiplash. There are tiny neurons that are being severed in a whiplash injury that causes brain injury and can lead to concussions and even death.
So why doesn’t this happen to woodpeckers? Scientists have been studying them and found a few anatomical anomalies that help. The first is that they have a large tongue which is made up of bone and muscle that wraps around the inside of their skull and cushions their brain. They also have spongy bone helmets that are similar to a football player’s helmet.
Woodpeckers also have large muscular necks. Why would having a large neck with lots of muscles help? If you look at football players and rugby players the larger a neck the better chance of absorbing the shock from a big hit. The muscles of the neck help slow down the neck movement’s. Another easy way to think of it is if two people get in an auto collision. The person who is bigger and has more muscles will generally have an easier time absorbing the shock from the blow of the collision than someone who has a smaller frame and less musculature.
Next time you see a woodpecker you might think how cool it is with a giant tongue that protects its brain, a skull that acts like a helmet and large neck muscles.