Some new research may provide a clue on how to prevent concussions, and it both is, and is not, anything but bird-brained.
Researchers have studied videos of woodpeckers to try and explain why the birds don't get concussions, despite pounding their heads against trees between 18-22 times per second.
The new study shows how the build of the bird's skull actually protects its brain from suffering concussions. The Toronto Star reports that sports equipment companies could use this woodpecker innovation to help stop athletes from having brain inuries.
Scientist Yubo Fan of Beijing's Beihang University reports a woodpeckers skull has evolved over the years with several varied layers of protection that ables the birds' brains to take up to a stunning 1,000 G's of force in search of a meal.
"We assumed woodpeckers were protected against. . . head injuries, although no studies have been carried out to prove it comparatively,” the study, which was published Wednesday by the online journal Public Library of Science One, said. “Simple reasoning would indicate that if woodpeckers got headaches, they would stop pecking."
This information is potentially enormous for pro athletes. 60% of NFL players suffered at least one concussion in their careers; 26% suffered three or more concussions, according to a 200 study reported by Scientific American. In 2007 a study of 600 retired NFL players with three ore more concussions discovered that 20% had suffered from depression.
Woodpeckers' beaks are an unequal length, the lower is longer, this helps push impact force downwards, away from the brain while banging against the head. The study also uncovered the birds' brains are covered by a unique skull, built with uneven, spongy plates that as a result make it stronger than those of birds of another feather.
Scientists believe that the specially evolved hyoid bone is the key discovery. This bone goes from the woodpecker's beak all the way around the top of the skull in a loop, completely surrounding the bird's brain. As described by the Toronto Star, you can think of it as a seatbelt that keeps the brain from crashing into the sides of the skull during backwards movement. But that's not all.
Since woodpeckers have to fly, the bones are lightweight, while other animals known for banging heads – such as mountain goat rams – have heavy, thick skulls.
The researchers feel some of these odd woodpecker skull features can be transferred over to football and hockey helmets.