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Protective nature: How woodpeckers could help improve helmet technology to prevent brain injuries

In the quest for ever-improving technology, scientists have often looked to nature for inspiration.

And now researchers believe that woodpeckers may offer clues as to how to improve protective headgear to minimise devastating brain injuries.

They say their analysis of the bird’s anatomy and behaviour revealed some features that could potentially be put to use when designing helmets.

Woodpeckers are able to peck at a tree trunk at high speed, resulting in intense deceleration forces on impact, without sustaining any brain injury.

To investigate the source of the protection, the researchers – led by Yubo Fan of Beihang University in Beijing and Ming Zhang of Hong Kong Polytechnic University – recorded the birds using two synchronous high-speed video cameras.

They also took scans of the birds’ heads to reveal details about the micro-structural parameters such as the bone volume, thickness and density.

They then constructed 3D models that allowed for further testing and measurement of the forces involved.


The results showed that specific details of the cranial bones and beak – such as the relative ‘spongy’-ness of the bone at different places in the skull and the unequal lengths of the upper and lower parts of the beak – were crucial for preventing impact injury.

The researchers conclude that the shock absorption system is not based on a single factor, but is as a result of the combined effect of a number of different morphological features.

Dr Fan said: ‘This combination may be useful in guiding design for new protective gear’.

The findings were published in the latest issue of the online science journal PLoS ONE.


Scientists hope to use a woodpecker's anatomical design to improve protective headgearScientists hope to use a woodpecker’s anatomical design to improve protective headgear

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