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Birds could teach the NFL how to take a hit, according to Natural History Museum of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The NFL is loaded with teams named after birds such as the Cardinals, the Seahawks and, well, the Eagles.

But one bird likely more deserving of a team is the woodpecker, according to Alicia Boynton, a bioengineering Ph.D. student at the University of Utah.

According to Boynton, woodpeckers offer valuable insight to NFL players in preventing neck injuries. Among other oddities, the birds have a tongue and tongue bone that wrap around their skull, which provides cushioning for when they peck. Such pecks can cause a G-force above 1000 (for comparison, the Lagoon roller coaster "Wicked" has 4.85 Gs, according to

“We can use a little bit of the knowledge from woodpeckers about what materials to put into the helmet,” Boynton said. “(If) the tongue is providing a nice cushioning, maybe we can make an artificial foam type pad inside the helmet that would mimic those same materials, as well as the shape of the skull … that will help us maybe figure out the shape of the helmet and how to dissipate impacts from different areas.”

Using the animal kingdom as an inspiration for design is the basis for the Natural History Museum of Utah's new exhibit, “Nature’s Ultimate Machines,” which runs now through Sept. 3. and focuses on what nature can teach about usefulness and efficiency in engineering.

Boynton, who was one of the experts invited by NHMU to present at a media event about the exhibit, focuses her research on the neck and torso during locomotion. The muscles found in these regions, Boynton added, are particularly interesting in how they are used to stabilize the head while undergoing rapid deceleration.

Lindsay Reeder, another Ph.D. candidate at the U., studies bird morphology and biomechanics. Reeder said birds provided a lot of inspiration in the design of planes, but at one point, we probably tried too hard to emulate the feathered aviators.

“We borrowed a lot from birds in airplane design and especially gliding birds because airplanes don't flap,” Reeder said. "It actually stalled our effort in developing flight for thousands and thousands of years because we were so hung up on having it flap, and you just can't generate that amount of power in flapping. It was only the fixed-wing aircraft — the (Wright Brothers’) Kitty Hawk airplanes, the gliders — that were actually the first to get off the ground and they borrowed that from these basic concepts.”

The exhibit's interactive flight simulator explores this process. It lets visitors glide with elegance or breathlessly struggle as they try to get going, all depending on the shape and size of wing they choose.

Another interesting display explores the mechanisms operating a giraffe’s circulatory system. As the display points out, with such long limbs, it takes a lot of pressure to push around their blood. The blood vessels' intelligent design helps circulate the blood, even halting blood flow through valves when giraffes bend down to drink water.

From the largest of mammals to the smallest of termites, the two groups share a lot in common when it comes to height. Termite mounds can be built a towering 17 feet tall, offering not only a multistoried view but luxury air conditioning.

The exhibit's realistic termite mound explains the effective cooling used inside the structures, as well as why a building in Zimbabwe was built using the same chimneylike system, which pulls in cool air from the ground while hot air escapes from above.

The exhibit and all its displays offer myriad chances for youths to learn and explore. Christopher Dadok, a teacher from Emerson Elementary School, brought his immersion students to expand on their curriculum of animal adaptations.

“I thought it was really interesting how a lot of scientists have based their engineering projects … off of animals,” Dadok said, "like the ceiling fans using bumps like the humpback whale. I never would have thought to do that.”

Lisa Thompson, an exhibit developer for NHMU, also has high hopes for “Nature's Ultimate Machines.”

“What you get to see are how living creatures over millions and millions of years have evolved incredibly elegant solutions to the challenges of surviving and obtaining food and exploring the world around them,” she said.

If you go

What: “Nature’s Ultimate Machines”

When: Through Sept. 3

Where: The Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way

How much: $7.95-$12.95