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Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?

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Hit your head really hard on something, and it’ll smart for a while. In worse cases, you might get a concussion, fracture your skull, or receive a brain injury that leaves you impaired or kills you (traumatic brain injuries account for nearly one third of injury-related deaths in the US).

Good thing you’re not a woodpecker, then. The lives and livelihoods of these birds revolve around slamming their heads into things. Whether it wants to get at an insect hiding in bark, excavate a space to build a nest, claim a bit of territory, or attract a mate, the woodpecker has one simple solution: bang its head against a tree trunk at speeds reaching 13 to 15 miles per hour. In an average day, a woodpecker does this around 12,000 times, and yet they don’t seem to hurt themselves or be the least bit bothered by it. This is because, after millions of years of this type of behavior, they’ve evolved some specialized headgear to prevent injuries to their heads, brains, and eyes.

To figure out what goes into woodpecker head trauma prevention, a team of Chinese scientists took a look at the birds’ skulls and brains and their pecking behavior. They watched as woodpeckers pecked at force sensors while recording them with high-speed cameras so they could see the strikes in slow motion and know how hard each blow was. They also scanned the birds’ heads with x-rays and an electron microscope to get a better look at their bone structure. Finally, they squished a few preserved woodpecker skulls in a material testing machine and, using their scans, built 3D computer models of the birds’ heads to smash in a simulation.

When all was said and done and both the virtual and actual woodpeckers' heads had taken a sound beating, the researchers found that there are a few anatomical features and other factors that come together to keep a woodpecker safe and healthy while it rat-a-tat-tats the day away.

First, a woodpecker’s skull is built to absorb shock and minimize damage. The bone that surrounds the brain is thick and spongy, and loaded with trabeculae, microscopic beam-like bits of bone that form a tightly woven “mesh” for support and protection. On their scans, the scientists found that this spongy bone is unevenly distributed in woodpeckers, and it is concentrated around the forehead and the back of the skull, where it could act as a shock absorber.

Woodpeckers' hyoid bones act as additional support structures. In humans, the horseshoe-shaped hyoid is an attachment site for certain throat and tongue muscles. Woodpeckers’ hyoids do the same job, but they’re much larger and are differently shaped. The ends of the “horseshoe” wrap all the way around the skull and, in some species, even around the eye socket or into the nasal cavity, eventually meeting to form a sort of sling shape. This bizarre-looking bone, the researchers think, acts like a safety harness for the woodpecker’s skull, absorbing shock stress and keeping it from shaking, rattling and rolling with each peck.

Inside the skull, the brain has its own defenses. It’s small and smooth, and is positioned in a tight space with its largest surface pointing towards the front of the skull. It doesn’t move around too much, and when it does collide with the skull, the force is spread out over a larger area. This makes it more resistant to concussions, the researchers say.

A woodpecker’s beak helps prevent trauma, too. The outer tissue layer of its upper beak is longer than the lower beak, creating a kind of overbite, and the bone structure of the lower beak is longer and stronger than the upper one. The researchers think that the uneven build diverts impact stress away from the brain and distributes it to the lower beak and bottom parts of the skull instead.

The woodpecker’s anatomy doesn’t just prevent injuries to the brain, but also its eyes. Other research using high-speed recordings has shown that, in the fraction of a second just before their beaks strike wood, woodpeckers’ thick nictitans—membranes beneath the lower lid of their eyes, sometimes called the “third eyelid”—close over the eyes. This protects them from debris and keeps them in place. They act like seatbelts, says ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab, author of Evolution's Witness: How Eyes Evolved, and they keep the retina from tearing and the eye from popping right out of the skull.

There’s also a behavioral aspect to the damage control. The researchers found that woodpeckers are pretty good at varying the paths of their pecks. By moving their heads and beaks around as they hammer away, they minimize the number of times in a row that the brain and skull make contact at the same point. Older research also showed that the strike trajectories, as much as they vary, are always almost linear. There’s very little, if any, rotation of the head and almost no movement immediately after impact, minimizing twisting force that could cause injury.

Earlier this year, another group of researchers in China found that, with all of these adaptations, 99.7 percent of the impact energy from striking a tree is absorbed by the body, but a little bit—that last 0.3 percent—does go to the head and the brain. That mechanical energy gets converted into heat, which causes the temperature of a woodpecker’s brain to increase, but the birds seem to have a way dealing with that, too. Woodpeckers usually peck in short bursts with breaks in between, and the researchers think that these pauses give the brain time to cool down before the head banging starts again and brings the temperature back up.

This story was originally published in 2012. It was updated with new information in 2014.

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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