How weird can a woodpecker’s hyoid bone be?

While the human hyoid is a simple small bone, there are several species with fantastically weird hyoid bones that have even more specialized uses. We’ll be looking at one animal family that makes the most of its hyoid bone: the woodpeckers. Now you may be thinking: Kat, how weird can a woodpecker’s hyoid bone be?

ANSWER: This bone is important for the woodpeckers titular activity: pecking wood. Daily, woodpeckers stab their face into a tree an average of 12,000 times. Each jab occurs at a speed of 13-15 mph. For comparison, each peck is roughly the equivalent of a human falling 7.5 ft. That’s a lot of pressure for such a tiny, lightweight skull. 

We’re back again with another installment of Osteology in Action! Today we’re going to take a look at the humble hyoid bone. In humans, the hyoid bone is a horseshoe shaped bone that is unique in the fact that it is the only bone in the human body to not directly articulate to another bone. It is, however, the attachment site of no less than 12 muscles. This bone has many purposes, including a greater range of  lingual, pharyngeal and laryngeal movements. Basically, it helps you breathe, eat, drink and make noise. One purpose may even be to keep your airway from compressing during sleep. Pretty important little bone right.

While the human hyoid is a simple small bone, there are several species with fantastically weird hyoid bones that have even more specialized uses. We will be looking at one animal family that makes the most of its hyoid bone: the woodpeckers. Now you may be thinking: Kat, how weird can a woodpecker’s hyoid bone be? Well the Picoides pubescens has the very fun distinction of being the smallest species of woodpecker in North America. Those two wire-thin bones that appear to encircle its head are one part of its hyoid bone. The full bone begins in the nostril of the upper beak, where it then splits, encircles the head and passes the cervical vertebrae and larynx to finally rest within the tongue itself.

The next important question is: but why? Well, this bone is important for the woodpecker’s titular activity: pecking wood. Daily, woodpeckers stab their face into a tree an average of 12,000 times. Each jab occurs at a speed of 13-15 mph. For comparison, each peck is roughly the equivalent of a human falling 7.5 ft. That’s a lot of pressure for such a tiny, lightweight skull.

However, 99.7% of that shock is absorbed with the help of the hyoid bone. There are other factors, such as the thick spongy bone that sits at the base of the beak and the overall structure of the beak having more give. But how exactly does it work and why is it so effective? Well, when the beak hits the wood, it gives a little, absorbing some of the shock on impact, the remaining pressure either travels up to the spongy bone at the base of the beak or along the hyoid bone, which directs it away from the brain. This allows our feathered friends to bang their heads against trees up to 22 times per second without sustaining any damage to their brain or skeletal structure.

The only downside to this is that the heat produced from this transfer of energy requires that the woodpecker stop for short intervals to allow its apparatus to cool down before resuming. Which explains why they peck in short, sustained bursts before pausing. Overall, this structure is so effective, it has inspired a new breed of shock absorbers, ones that may soon surround the in-flight recorders commonly known as the “black box”.

one animal family that makes the most of its hyoid bone: the woodpeckers

You May Like:

giant gourami, Osphronemus gourami

Whose teeth are those?

Look at those teeth! Look at those scales! That’s one mean, possibly green swimming machine! There was only one problem, nobody knew what it was.

Read More »