Nubian Woodpecker

Photographed in situ [1]

A nubian woodpecker (Campethera nubica) clutches a tree to drill away in search of beetle grubs and insects. This species is distributed throughout eastern Africa. Both sexes have a bright red crown, though on males the red patch caps the entire head and there is also a red stripe along the face. Like most woodpeckers they specialize in feeding on insect larvae that reside inside tree trunks, but during monsoonal conditions when termites and ants are plentiful, they will also forage opportunistically. Woodpeckers are famous for their distinct and repetitive behavior of pecking into solid wood with over an astonishing 1,000 G-force. Studies examining how the brain remains seemingly unscathed during the process have revealed that pliable microstructures in the beak and the cartilaginous and flexible hyoid apparatus reduces strain and enhances shock-absorption, while spongy microstructures in the thick skull prevent deformation. But what is equally fascinating about woodpeckers is their bizarre tongue morphology. Woodpeckers possess barbed-tipped tongues over twice the length of their heads, projecting them into drilled holes to spear or wrap around insect prey. To accommodate this structure, instead of retracting it into a sheath adjacent to the esophagus and trachea, the muscular tongue actually wraps upwards along the hyoid apparatus over the brain and eyes to terminate near the nostrils. Ever since learning about this, I’ve never looked at woodpeckers the same way. How strange it must feel to slip your tongue in and out of that cavity; maybe it’s like a soothing massage.

Woodpecker tongue; illustration by Denise Takahashi
SEM image comparison between cross-sections of woodpecker (a) cranial and (b) beak bones, and lark (c) cranial and (d) beak bones (Wang et al., 2011)

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