Last weekend, my family and I were getting our hike on at Banning State Park in Sandstone, Minnesota. As we were trekking along listening to the nearby opera or western chorus frogs, spring peepers, and wood frogs, we heard a new sound. This one was much more rhythmic, or percussionary— a rolling pattern of dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum nearly 7 drums every second, pausing only briefly before picking up again. It was a young Hairy Woodpecker on a treeside above. So, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do a #RandomActOfNaturalism.
I only briefly mentioned some recent research relating to woodpeckers and CTE, the degenerative brain disease resulting from repeated brain trauma and frequently seen in former NFL players, so I’ll elaborate here:
Woodpeckers are a peculiar bird, and using their head to solve tricky situations like getting food from hard to reach places is quite literal for them. For a long time, scientists have believed that somehow, woodpeckers are immune to the effects of banging their faces into a tree at 15 miles per hour—repeatedly—-day-after-day, year-after-year for 20 to 30 years.
Yet a new report may suggest otherwise, to an extent. Woopeckers by all appearances don’t seem to experience behavioral changes which may be associated with a degenerative disease such as CTE, but they do build up accumulations of the same protein that athletes do.about woodpecker brain tissue raises the possibility that the birds do suffer some consequences. Maybe the woodpeckers are just fine behaviorally. But they have, to the scientists’ surprise, protein accumulations (this particular protein is called Tau) in their brains that resemble those found in athletes with head traumas.
The research was done by Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist at Boston University, Don Siwek (who sadly passed away last year), and George Farah, a neurobiologist.
Now, Tau (brown cow) naturally occurs in the brain, but injuries may cause it to form clumps or groups of clumps that are quite harmful. When these accumulations occur, it results in CTE, which stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A person with CTE may be aggressive, experience depression and memory loss, and eventually the condition may grow into outright dementia. Woodpeckers however, don’t exhibit these symptoms, so why?
For one, for CTE to occur, Tau really needs to accumulate in the right spots of the brain. Needless to say, human brains aren’t bird brains and human heads aren’t woodpecker heads. Human brains slosh all over the place like jello in a fish bowl—sorta. Our brains are larger and heavier. Once they start moving, it takes more force to slow them down (think Newtons Laws). Woodpeckers by comparison have smaller brains which are much more resilient to changes in force, able to handle 10 times as much g-force. Woodpeckers also have very long tongues which wrap around the back of their skull—called the hyoid apparatus—which helps to act like a shock absorber of sorts.
But what should we ultimately make of this? Well, we don’t really know. We don’t know if perhaps the Tau accumulations in woodpeckers somehow protect them or if perhaps there is something else happening researchers just haven’t found yet. What is known is that somehow woodpeckers manage, which means further study may help people do the same. Woodpeckers are already inspiring new helmet designs!