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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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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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