The human body can tolerate large hits, but pales in comparison to the common woodpecker. These small birds are perfectly adapted to withstand massive force. On average, they contact trees 12,000 times a day at 15 miles per hour. Woodpeckers can easily withstand over 1,200 G’s with no measurable brain damage. This is the equivalent of going from 26,000 miles per hour to a complete stop in under a second. The unique features that allow woodpeckers to tolerate frequent hard hits are inspiring a new type of equipment to protect athletes and soldiers from head injuries.
Minimizing the slosh effect has clearly been effective in minimizing brain damage to woodpeckers, and has even been observed in humans. At high elevations, the brain increases in volume which leads to less room to move around the skull. A study found that NFL athletes suffered 30% fewer concussions at higher altitudes, likely due to this “bubble wrap” effect.
Its not realistic to move all athletic competitions to higher elevations, but new technology may provide an alternative. The mechanisms that protect woodpeckers are being imitated to design a snug fitting collar. This collar could be work by the athlete to put pressure on the jugular vein and increase the blood flow to the brain.
The woodpecker’s brain is also supported by extremely strong neck muscles, and is surrounded by a thick, spongy bone. The bone creates a mesh-like barrier to protect the brain and allows force to be spread evenly after the impact, rather than concentrating in one spot. The woodpecker’s specialized anatomy could be reproduced in all types of safety equipment. If these new technologies are proven to be effective, they could be one more tool used to combat concussions in athletes of all ages.