Football players and boxers suffer brain injuries, so why don't woodpeckers?

The leading cause of death in adult humans hardly gives a headache to birds that rapid-fire drill their beaks into hapless trees.

A new study entitled Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury: A Biomechanical Investigation from a team of Chinese scientists sought to answer that question.

Their answer?

Woodpeckers have a shock absorber system human heads lack. The birds also figured out the best angle to peck at hardened surfaces without becoming bird brains.

Research, led by Yubo Fan of Beihang University in Beijing and Ming Zhang of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, used synchronous high-speed video cameras to capture woodpeckers head-slamming into trees.

The videos along with anatomical studies showed that the woodpecker's bird brain is protected by the relative spongy-ness of the bone at various places in the skull and the unequal lengths of the upper and lower parts of the beak.

The authors published their research online Wednesday in PLoS ONE.

The researchers said that their insights could give design guidance for protective gear. Humans can typically withstand no more than 18 times the force of gravity whereas woodpeckers can withstand 1000 G forces.

The scientists stumbled upon the research tract during a review of the literature of human head injuries, Fan said via email.

A 1976 Lancet paper by the late Philip R.A. May of University of California Los Angeles, explored why woodpeckers don't get headaches, an inspiration for the current study.

We want to give our thanks to the late author May, Fan said.

The research went on to win a 2006 Ig Nobel Prize, cheeky awards meant to foster humor and public understanding of science.

The research has a serious side: brain injury kills 52,000 Americans annually according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This research might be the basis to improve the protection of human impact injury, Fan said.