How a Woodpecker Bangs Without Brain Damage

Jiri Slama/BIA/Minden Pictures/Corbis
Science China Press

How a Woodpecker Bangs Without Brain Damage

The woodpecker’s ability to protect its head may help engineers build safer cars. 

By Chelsea Harvey
Published: 08/13/2014

In a head-banging contest between you and a woodpecker, the woodpecker would definitely win. This is because of the woodpecker's amazing ability to withstand tremendous blows to the head--brought on by their high-speed pecking--without suffering brain damage. 

It's an ability that has fascinated scientists for decades, and the interest isn't just academic. If humans could replicate the woodpecker's impressive anti-shock mechanism, we could vastly improve the safety features in vehicles like cars or airplanes, which can be deadly in the case of a collision. Scientists have long been aware that woodpeckers have different skulls than other birds, but until now, they've had a poor understanding of how the woodpecker's anatomy actually protects its brain.

New research puts us one step closer to unlocking the secret.  Researchers from Dalian University of Technology in China used computer tomography (CT) scans of a real-life woodpecker to construct a detailed, digital model of its body.  Then they used software to simulate the bird's pecking--a process that can force the woodpecker's head to endure up to 1500 g-force units. For comparison's sake, a passenger on a typical roller coaster will only experience about 5 g's. 

Science China Press
A schematic of the woodpecker's pecking process.


The study, published this month in Science China: Technological Sciences, shows that the key to the woodpecker's survival lies in how it converts the energy it absorbs. When a woodpecker strikes a tree, the impact energy--energy that is released during a collision--is converted to strain energy in the body. Too much strain in the head can be catastrophic, but the woodpecker's incredible anatomy--including a specialized beak and skull--redirects most of the strain into the rest of the body, instead of the head.

In fact, 99.7 percent of the strain energy is converted in the woodpecker's body, and only 0.3 percent is converted in the head.  This small amount of strain is quickly dissipated from the head in the form of heat. This process protects the brain from damage, but causes temperatures inside the skull to rise quickly, meaning woodpeckers have to take frequent breaks while they're pecking. In this way, the woodpecker's whole body is involved in the fight to protect its brain from damage.

Understanding this energy dissipation technique could be big for engineers, particularly those who work with transportation. Greater understanding of one of the world's most collision-resistant animals could help humans build better safety features in the future. 

So the next time a woodpecker wakes you with its banging, remember that it could one day save your life.    

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Chelsea Harvey

Chelsea Harvey is a freelance writer with a special interest in wildlife conservation. Follow her on Twitter @chelseaharvey91.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


wow you have put some

wow you have put some detailed info in it nice work.

I have often wondered how the

I have often wondered how the wood pecker's head could withstand this jarring activity. Now, I know. Feel so much smarter, now! :) Thank yu for the explanation.

I find it surprising that a

I find it surprising that a serious scientific study would omit one of the key characteristics of the woodpecker's anatomy that helps protect the bird's brain. The woodpecker has an unusual tongue that envelops the cerebrum and also helps cushion the impact of the peck.

The recently established

The recently established BallenIsles Wildlife Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization funded by donations and led by dedicated volunteer residents located in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. Our mission is to preserve, protect, foster, and respect the wildlife within our community. We hope to accomplish this in large part by educating our 1,575 residents about the wildlife with which we cohabitate.

In addition to our recently created website and facebook page (, we will be publishing a monthly newsletter for our residents beginning October 1, 2014. In our search for educational, informative, and fun articles we found your website on the internet.

May we have your permission to reprint facts, articles or information cited on your website, in its entirety or excerpts from it, in our newsletter and/or on our Facebook page? Of course, we will cite your website as our source and attribute authorship appropriately.

Thank you for your consideration.

Linda Hornsby
Vice President
BallenIsles Wildlife Foundation

I wonder if bio-feedback

I wonder if bio-feedback could help humans dissipate the heat energy more quickly somehow?

A bird of any kind has

A bird of any kind has AMAZING abikities!

I never thought about how

I never thought about how much presure that must put on those tiny bodies to be able to make such a loud noise.

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