Head injuries: woodpeckers could be key to better protection

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Following research into woodpecker behaviour, headgear can soon be developed which offers better protection against head injuries, scientists in the Far East believe.

Woodpecker research prevent head injuriesAlthough the high speed at which a woodpecker pecks at a tree leads to extreme deceleration on impact, the bird suffers no brain injury: a factor which could be crucial in efforts to minimise the effects of severe head injuries in humans.

To find out more about the woodpecker's natural protection, researchers from universities in Beijing and Hong Kong used 2 synchronous high-speed video cameras to record the birds.

After scanning the woodpeckers' heads to analyse data on bone volume, thickness and density, the scientists constructed 3D models for more testing and to measure the forces involved.

Results proved that certain details of the beak and cranial bones, such as the unequal lengths of the upper and lower parts of the beak and the 'sponge' nature of the bone at different places in the skull, were instrumental in preventing impact injury.

Concluding that the woodpecker's shock absorption system is due to the combined effect of a number of different morphological features and not based on a single factor, Dr Yubo Fan of Beihang University in Beijing said: "This combination may be useful in guiding design for new protective gear."

Phil Gower of Simpson Millar LLP said that the birds naturally endure enormous forces that humans only encounter accidentally. "Woodpeckers create forces of up to 1000g when they drill at tree trunks, but are completely unscathed," he said. "If the findings of these tests lead to better protection against head injury, they will have been exceptionally valuable."


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