Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?

pablo_arriaran/iStock via Getty Images
pablo_arriaran/iStock via Getty Images

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.

What’s the Difference Between Crocheting and Knitting?

djedzura/iStock via Getty Images
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

With blustery days officially upon us, the most pressing question about your sweaters, scarves, hats, and mittens is probably: “Are these keeping me warm?” If you’re a DIY enthusiast, or just a detail-oriented person in general, your next question might be: “Were these knitted or crocheted?”

Knitting and crocheting are both calming crafts that involve yarn, produce cozy garments and other items, and can even boost your mental well-being. Having said that, they do have a few specific differences.

To knit, you need needles. The size, material, and number of those needles depends on the project; though most traditional garments are made using two needles, it’s also possible to knit with just one needle, or as many as five. But regardless of the other variables, one or both ends of your knitting needles will always be pointed.

While crocheting calls for a similar long, thin tool that varies in size and material, it has a hooked end—and you only ever need one. According to The Spruce Crafts, even if you hear people refer to the tool as a crochet needle, they’re really talking about a crochet hook.

crotchet hook and garment
jessicacasetorres/iStock via Getty Images

Part of the reason you only use one hook brings us to the next difference between crocheting and knitting: When crocheting, there’s only one “active loop” on your hook at any given time, whereas knitting entails lining up loops down the length of your needles and passing them between needles. The blog Darn Good Yarn explains that since each loop is attached to a long row of stitches, accidentally “dropping” one off the end of your needle might unravel the entire row.

Of course, you have a better chance of avoiding that type of manual error if you’re using a knitting machine or loom, which both exist. Crocheting, on the other hand, has to be done by hand. Since machines can create garments with extremely small stitches, some knit clothes can be much more lightweight or close-fitting than anything you’d be able to crochet—and knitted clothes can also be mass-produced.

When it comes to what the items actually look like, crochet stitches characteristically look more like knots, while knit stitches seem flatter and less bulky. However, materials and techniques have come a long way over the years, and now there’s more crossover between what you’re able to knit and crochet. According to The Spruce Crafts, socks and T-shirts—traditionally both garments that would be knitted—can now technically be crocheted.

knitting needles and garment
Sedan504/iStock via Getty Images

And, believe it or not, knitting and crocheting can even be used to depict complicated mathematical concepts: see what a crocheted hyperbolic plane, Lorenz manifold, and more look like here.

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

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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