Toucan Beaks Are Models Of Lightweight Strength says UCSD engineer
University of California at San Diego release
November 30, 2005
As a boy growing up in Brazil 40 years ago, Marc A. Meyers marveled at the lightweight toughness of toucan beaks that he occasionally found on the forest floor. Now a materials scientist and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, Meyers said makers of airplanes and automobiles may benefit from the first ever detailed engineering analysis of toucan beaks conducted in his lab.
In a paper to be published Dec. 1 in Acta Materialia, Meyers and graduate students Yasuaki Seki and Matthew S. Schneider reported that the secret to the toucan beak's lightweight strength is an unusual bio-composite. The interior of the beak is rigid "foam" made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes sandwiched between outer layers of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Just as the hook-shaped barbs on cockleburs inspired the development of Velcro, Meyers said the avian bio-composite could inspire the design of ultra-light aircraft and vehicle components with synthetic foams made with metals and polymers.
"The big surprise was our finding that the beak's sandwich structure also behaves as a high energy impact-absorption system," said Meyers. "Panels that mimic toucan beaks may offer better protection to motorists involved in crashes."
Toucans are highly social, noisy residents of rainforests in the Amazon, although the birds live as far north as Mexico. They use their extremely large and often brightly colored beaks for a variety of purposes, from gathering fruit from the tips of tree branches, to defending themselves.
UCSD materials scientists discovered that the lightweight strength of the Toco Toucan's beak is due to a matrix of bony fibers and drum-like membranes sandwiched between an outer layer of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Images courtesy of UCSD.
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."
The surface of the toucan beak is made of layers of keratin "tiles" that are glued together.
The interior of the the toucan beak is a "foam" made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes.
The beak has a hollow region in an interior region where the mechanical stresses were insignificant.
The study in Acta Materialia also noted a hollow region extending about half the length of the upper and lower beaks. "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."
This story is derived from a University of California at San Diego news release. This original version appears at Engineers Discover Why Toucan Beaks Are Models Of Lightweight Strength.
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