February 5, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Woodpeckers Have Multiple Protections Against Brain Injury

Any one of these adaptations would challenge Darwinian evolution, but all of them together in head-banging bird?

How do you protect your head against 1,400 G’s when your life’s work requires you to bang your head repeatedly to find food in wood? Woodpeckers don’t die of concussions. Surely they must suffer some brain injury, don’t they?

At Live Science, Mindy Waisberger reports on examination of brain tissue in woodpeckers. Three scientists, publishing their results in PLoS One, found the presence of tau protein in the tissue. Since that is often associated with brain injury in humans, they initially thought this shows that woodpeckers do suffer from the repeated pounding to the head. Another possibility, though, is that the tau protein cushions the birds’ brains.

The presence of tau proteins in woodpecker brains shows that their brains are not invulnerable to the effects of forceful pecking. Nevertheless, the tau proteins aren’t necessarily hinting that woodpeckers suffer from pecking-related neurodegenerative disease or brain damage, the scientists wrote in the study.

“Something — tau — was there that shouldn’t necessarily be. But whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we don’t know,” Farah said.

Pileated woodpecker by Lorax (Wikimedia Commons)

Woodpeckers have numerous specialized traits that work together to enable them to peck holes in trees. Waisberger and the authors only mention the first five:

  • Skulls with spongy layers, particularly in front
  • Robust neck muscles
  • Thick inner eyelids that close for each strike
  • A bony plate that protects the optic region
  • Sharp beaks with upper and lower components which can move independently of each other while pecking
  • Toes adapted for gripping trees: two pointing forward, two pointing backward, with tendons for each one
  • Senses geared to finding bugs behind the hard wood, so they know where to peck
  • A long tongue that wraps around the skull that can be extended into the pecked hole
  • Sticky glue on the tongue to catch a bug
  • Glue dissolver so the tongue doesn’t stick inside the bird’s mouth

With this new study, another specialization may have been found. “In fact, tau might even serve as a protective adaptation,”Waisberger writes, “providing a buffer around the birds’ neurons that insulates them against harm, according to the study.” One of the authors suspected this might be true for ‘evolutionary’ reasons:

“I wonder if what we’re seeing in the woodpeckers may be a protective mechanism for the neurons,” Cummings added. “You have skull modifications, tongue modifications —why would that stop at the brain? Why would the brain not participate in that process of evolutionary adaptation, and molecularly do that by the expression of a protective protein that may help stabilize neurons during that pecking procedure?”

And yet according to Darwin’s theory, any one of the functional adaptations listed above would require millions of years of lucky mutations to be selected for any advantage. How many pre-woodpeckers had to die of concussions before the first one succeeded in pecking a hole in a tree and finding a bug for all the trouble? As Dr Jobe Martin likes to point out in his films Incredible Creatures That Defy Evolution, all the parts have to be there at the same time to work. The ability to peck a hole wouldn’t help if the bird didn’t have a tongue long enough to reach inside. Glue on the tongue would starve the bird after its first meal if the tongue got stuck inside the mouth. All the brain protections wouldn’t help if the bird’s feet couldn’t cling to trees, and so on.

Waisberger glibly says that “the woodpecker lineage has been around for about 25 million years” (Darwin Years, that is), but neither she nor the three scientists address the puzzle of how all the necessary traits arose at the same time to allow pecking to work. One thing we do observe: they work exceptionally well. Waisberger says,

A woodpecker hammering away at a tree experiences forces up to 1,400 times that of Earth’s gravity, or 1,400 G’s. To put that into perspective, humans can withstand about 8 G’s of continuous momentum before eventually blacking out, and a sudden application of 50 G’s would detach most of our organs. Even relatively small amounts of g-force in people can cause concussion, lingering pain in the neck and back, and red dots on the skin from ruptured capillaries — known as “G-measles” or “geasles” — according to Go Flight Medicine, a website for aviation and medical professionals.

In short, watch woodpeckers with amazement, but do not imitate them. Football helmet designers have taken inspiration from woodpeckers, the authors note: “Due to it’s [sic] assumed resistance to neurotrauma, the woodpecker has become a model for the development of safety equipment such as football helmets and neck collars.”

Don’t you wish someone, somewhere, would realize that evolution (the Stuff Happens Law) is powerless to explain the superlative abilities we find in the living world? Oh, wait: we do here at Creation-Evolution Headlines. This story is another example of why you should stop trusting the Fake Science Media when they approach every wonder of nature with the worn-out lie, “It evolved.”




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