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Engineers discover why toucan beaks are models of lightweight strength

re both long and thick. Emerald Forest Bird Gardens, a California breeder of exotic birds, provided beaks from toucans that had died from natural causes to Meyers's team. They analyzed the beaks' density, stiffness, hardness, and response to compression and stretching. They also examined the beaks with a scanning electron microscope.

The beak's interior is a highly organized matrix of stiff cancellous bone fibers that looks as if it was dipped into a soapy solution and dried, generating drum-like membranes that interconnect the fibers. The result is a solid "foam" of air-tight cells that gives the beak additional rigidity.

"The beak is mostly air," said Meyers. "While the inner part of human bone also contains cancellous bone, we don't have the foam interconnections, which produce a much stronger structure with very little additional weight."

Like a house covered by a shingled roof, the foam is covered with overlapping keratin tiles, each about 50 micrometers in diameter and 1 micrometer thick, which are glued together to produce sheets.

The study in Acta Materialia also noted a hollow region extending about half the length of the upper and lower beak. "When we did the calculations, we discovered that there are only very insignificant mechanical stresses in the center of the beak at the position of the hollow areas," said Meyers. "This is why I jokingly tell my students that toucans have a deep knowledge of mechanics. They don't bother adding structural support in a part of the beak that doesn't really need it."


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Source:University of California - San Diego


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