Skulls engineered to take hard knocks

SIMON WINCHESTER

The braincase of a skull may well be, as advertised, a strongly built and cleverly engineered structure, but listening to all that incessant banging coming from the direction of the crab apple tree in the garden, one has to wonder: Is it really strong enough to keep a woodpecker from having the most terrible headache?

And what about those rams you see butting heads with such determined ferocity? The crashing sounds, the visions of extreme violence, the frequent tangling of horns—how do animals with an instinctive need for such brutish behaviour prevent their brains from turning into rice pudding?

Some answers are to be found in the upstairs bedroom of a decidedly unremarkable suburban house on the outskirts of the city of Coventry, in the English Midlands. This is where a collector named Alan Dudley has spent the last four decades bent to a curious obsession. By day he works selecting veneers for gluing to the dashboards of expensive automobiles. After work, he collects skulls.

He now has thousands, from the great hulk of a hippopotamus skull to the tiniest and most delicate tissue-like skull of a wren, and his collection makes up one of the finest and most comprehensive known. Included in it are many skulls of creatures that do strangely violent things to their heads—the ram and the woodpecker among them.

Both creatures happen to have very dense skulls, especially in that rounded rear area known as the braincase, where they are built like armoured cars. Crucially, their braincases are also unusually smooth inside.

The brains of most animals that are prone to head banging —these include deer and other antlered mammals, as well as various birds—are relatively small and smooth-surfaced; and they're bathed in only small amounts of cerebrospinal fluid, leaving little room for the brain to move and be shocked by the sudden decelerations and accelerations of their weaponised heads.

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