Royal Society Publishing

Hierarchical multiscale structure–property relationships of the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) beak

Nayeon Lee , M. F. Horstemeyer , Hongjoo Rhee , Ben Nabors , Jun Liao , Lakiesha N. Williams


We experimentally studied beaks of the red-bellied woodpecker to elucidate the hierarchical multiscale structure–property relationships. At the macroscale, the beak comprises three structural layers: an outer rhamphotheca layer (keratin sheath), a middle foam layer and an inner bony layer. The area fraction of each layer changes along the length of the beak giving rise to a varying constitutive behaviour similar to functionally graded materials. At the microscale, the rhamphotheca comprises keratin scales that are placed in an overlapping pattern; the middle foam layer has a porous structure; and the bony layer has a big centre cavity. At the nanoscale, a wavy gap between the keratin scales similar to a suture line was evidenced in the rhamphotheca; the middle foam layer joins two dissimilar materials; and mineralized collagen fibres were revealed in the inner bony layer. The nano- and micro-indentation tests revealed that the hardness (associated with the strength, modulus and stiffness) of the rhamphotheca layer (approx. 470 MPa for nano and approx. 320 MPa for micro) was two to three times less than that of the bony layer (approx. 1200 MPa for nano and approx. 630 MPa for micro). When compared to other birds (chicken, finch and toucan), the woodpecker's beak has more elongated keratin scales that can slide over each other thus admitting dissipation via shearing; has much less porosity in the bony layer thus strengthening the beak and focusing the stress wave; and has a wavy suture that admits local shearing at the nanoscale. The analysis of the woodpeckers' beaks provides some understanding of biological structural materials' mechanisms for energy absorption.

  • Received March 14, 2014.
  • Accepted April 15, 2014.
View Full Text

Log in through your institution