New research into why woodpeckers don’t get concussions busts a popular myth


Slow-motion video of pecking by the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). The original video was recorded at 1600 frames per second. Credit: Robert Shadwick & Erica Ortlieb/University of British Columbia

Check out almost any popular science article about woodpeckers and you’ll likely find some mention of why the birds don’t seem to suffer concussions, despite energetically drumming away at tree trunks all day with their beaks. Conventional wisdom holds that the structure of the woodpecker’s skull and beak acts as a kind of built-in shock absorber, protecting the bird from injury. But a new paper published in the journal Current Biology argues that this is incorrect and that woodpecker heads behave more like stiff hammers than shock absorbers.

“While filming the woodpeckers in zoos, I have witnessed parents explaining to their kids that woodpeckers don’t get headaches because they have shock absorbers built into their head,” said co-author Sam Van Wassenbergh of Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium. “This myth of shock absorption in woodpeckers is now busted by our findings.”

As for why this particular myth has endured for so long, Van Wassenbergh told Ars, “To us humans, the first thing that comes to our mind when watching an animal violently smashing their head against trees is to wish the animal had some kind of a built-in cushioning to prevent it from getting headaches or concussions. It is logical for us to think of such action in terms of protection and safety, as if it is an accident.”

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