The Loh Down On Science

Beak Plane

Latest innovation from Southwest Airlines: bird beaks?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Bird beaks are curious. They're strong enough to crack seeds, yet light enough to not tip over their owners.

What creates this balance? Biologist Joris Soons of Belgium's Antwerp University decided to peck around and find out.

He cross-sectioned beaks from deceased Java finches, and found the beaks are not solid. Rather, they're composed of layers of honeycomb-like bone struts--think airplane wings--sheathed in tough, elastic keratin. That's the building-block protein in feathers, claws, and fingernails.

Soons developed a mathematical model of the layers, factoring in Java finches' exact bite force, keratin's flexibility, and even common deformities in finches.

His conclusion? If someone developed an artificial keratin coating for airplane wings, it would increase wing strength, like a paint-on shock absorber.

He says artificial keratin would be especially handy, if, like real keratin, it self-repaired.

And think of the ginormous seeds airplane wings could crush! During long waits on the tarmac. Just for fun.



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