Woodpeckers are somewhat famous for their habitual act of slamming their faces into trees, but does this activity cause any brain damage to the birds?
Citing a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE by Boston University researchers, it just might. Then again, there’s probably more to the story than meets the eye.
Image Credit: Pixabay
When a woodpecker pecks at a tree, its head moves back and forth at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. Many do this up to 12,000 times per day and experience forces ranging from 1,200-1,400 g with each strike.
Given these variables, the researchers weren’t too surprised when they discovered high concentrations of a protein called tau in preserved woodpecker brains.
To give a little background, tau is a protein that aggregates in the brain after repeated trauma. High concentrations of tau have been linked to neurological problems like memory loss, confusion, and dementia. Perhaps non-coincidentally, tau also manifests itself in large quantities in football players’ brains after suffering from repeated head injuries.
While researchers have long drawn negative conclusions from excess tau concentrations in the brain, lower levels can have a positive impact. Just a little bit of tau can stabilize brain cells and help protect them from further injury.
The woodpeckers’ brains exhibited substantially more tau than we’d expect to see in a non-traumatized brain, so this implies that the birds might sustain brain injury from their repeated wood-pecking.
On the other hand, woodpeckers’ brains are entirely dissimilar from human brains, so the birds may have evolved over the years to evade brain injury and exploit tau’s positive effects – even when it’s present in high concentrations.
"The earliest woodpeckers date back 25 million years – these birds have been around for a long time," said Peter Cummings, one of the study’s co-authors.
"If pecking was going to cause brain injury, why would you still see this behavior? Why would evolutionary adaptations stop at the brain? There's a possibility that the tau in woodpeckers is a protective adaptation and maybe not pathological at all."
Admittedly, we still have a lot to learn about tau and its impact on the brain in both humans and woodpeckers. There’s no sure-fire way to say whether woodpeckers sustain brain damage or not, but perhaps future studies could shed some more light.