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Woodpeckers Should Play Football


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Thanksgiving is coming up, which means two things: turkey (or tofurkey, as the case may be) and football. That’s the United States in a nutshell, I suppose. But this widely beloved sport has a dark side that we’re becoming increasingly aware of: traumatic brain injuries.

The current helmets do little to disperse the shockwaves these men are exposed to as they slam together. Seeking inspiration from nature, researchers are looking to animals that make a nice living slamming their heads into things, such as woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are able to sustain about 10 times the force on their heads that we can, with no ill effects. Sounds like we can learn something from them.

At the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where I work as a writer and illustrator, I sat down with Professor Veronica Eliasson to talk about this woodpecker research. She said they were going to study the exact forces the woodpecker’s brain cavity experiences from the pecking it does. As a person with a science background, I said, “So are you going to get a bunch of woodpecker skulls and slam them into things?” Haha, no. Oh, Katie. Your science is showing. This is engineering. They don’t need actual woodpecker skulls. They build replicas.

I made the below video to outline the project and its goals. I’m still an animation novice, but with each new project, I’m getting better. Hope you enjoy!

And if you watch any football this weekend with a belly full of turkey in a room full of relatives, remember what these men are doing to their brains for our enjoyment.

Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What’s in Your Genes? and will be in bookstores December 2013. Her work can be found at www.beatricebiologist.com. Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tuned 2:11 pm 11/26/2013

    I am pondering whether to be offended at having the human brain compared to a bird brain in the 1st place, but perhaps it is not the correct question.
    Come back in 7 million years for an answer.

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  2. 2. Katie McKissick in reply to Katie McKissick 2:15 pm 11/26/2013

    Not sure why you might feel offended when we look to nature for helmet design inspiration, but that’s just how your brain works, I guess.

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  3. 3. dmoffittsmith 10:24 am 11/28/2013

    Katie, I can’t quite tell if you realized that tuned was joking. But that’s just how my brain works. Oh, and nice essay.

    Link to this

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