AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

A Woodpecker’s Headache

Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker can “peck” a tree at twenty times a second without damaging their head? Thinking about it, if you hit your head against a wall, you get a little dizzy.

Photo Credit: DigitalAlan

Does the woodpecker get dizzy? Research shows that with the study of evolution, all of these questions can be answered.

There are a lot of animals in this world that bang their skulls as a living. A woodpecker is one example. Other examples include “antler mammals” such as deer as well as many other birds. Looking at a deer’s skull, for example, one can see that the skull is quite large with a very small area for the brain; deer do not have large brains. Because the brain is surround with small amounts of cerebrospinal fluid in a small area, the brain is not able to rattle around when the deer bucks something. This is one example of how the study of skulls can lead to knowledge about an animal’s lifestyle.

Another animal, such as the gannet, has a skull that has evolved over hundreds of years. The gannet preys on fish in the ocean. While flying one hundred feet over the water, they can spot their prey. When they are ready to dive, they plunge into the water at sixty miles per hour! (That would definitely hurt my head) If we think about survival of the fittest while looking at the gannet’s school, we can see that the skull has an area that is more dense right in the front (the forehead of the bird). With a beak that can move up and down, they can direct the impact of the water right towards this large area. Also, air sacs in front of the skull allow for more protection the skull and the brain. This gives them a huge advantage in the areas where they live.

More studies of skulls can lead to how the animal can adapt to the environment and behave accordingly. Tarsiers, for example, are small creatures living in Southeast Asia. These miniature monkeys have huge eye sockets. Because they live in a “less threating area,” they need to keep an eye out for prey. Also, rabbits have auditory bullae, which allows them to have very acute hearing. This allows them to hear an owl swooping down to catch them. All of these adaptations need a specific skull.

The study of skulls can show what type of an environment an animal is living in. From deer to birds, all animals have different skulls. Survival of the fittest shows that with different adaptations, animals need different skulls. The next time you see a woodpecker, think about how your head would feel in that situation!


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  1. evolucious

    I have bumped my head more than a few times.Luckily, the human brain is cushioned by cerebrospinal fluid, protecting everyday hits or jolts. However, sudden acceleration or a violent blow to your upper body may result in a brain injury. It can even cause internal bleeding, which can be fatal!

    Read more about the symptoms and causes of concussions here:

  2. saysquad

    Biorob! This article is extremely intriguing. As well as having very thick skulls and small brains, woodpeckers have other attributes that allow them to pound their beaks continuously into wooden objects (mainly trees). Woodpeckers have very thick neck muscles that “diffuse” the force of the impact and a third eyelid that prevents the birds eyes from popping out. Their nostrils are also protected; they are slit like, and have feathers to protect them. For more information on this, check out the link.

  3. sayrest4

    The information in this article is very interesting when applied to human skulls. Woodpeckers and Gannets have thick skulls and small brains to protect against impact, but we have relatively thin skulls and large brains. This is probably because we are constantly thinking and need a lot of mental power. But when you look back to our ancestors you can see that their skulls are thicker and their brains smaller. This most likely due to the fact that they experienced more head trauma then we do now. (

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