On our fist trip down the Pacuare River this week, a group of four macaws lit out from the trees, sounding their ubiquitous squawk and spreading their wings to display gorgeous color contrasting against the backdrop of the trees. Yesterday was toucan day on the Pacuare. You would look up and see one flying erratically over the river. Few pumps of the wings, then a less-than gentle “nose dive” than more wing action….until crossing the river back into the safety of the tree canopy. Always in twos. The erratic part of their flying most likely comes from the great big thing at the end of their face!!
Why the big beak? Our Costa Rica compadre, Dawn, found us the answer:
The bill of the toucan is so large and thick that it should weigh the bird down. But as any Froot Loops aficionado can tell you, Toucan Sam gets around. That’s because his bill is a marvel of engineering. It’s hard enough to chew through the toughest fruit shells and sturdy enough to be a weapon against other birds, and yet, the toucan bill is only as dense as a Styrofoam cup.
Marc Meyers, a professor of engineering at the University of California at San Diego, has started to understand how the bill can be so light. At first glance, it appears to be foam surrounded by a hard shell, kind of like a bike helmet. But Meyers discovered that the foam is actually a complicated network of tiny scaffolds and thin membranes. The scaffolds themselves are made of heavy bone, but they are spaced apart in such a way that the entire bill is only one-tenth the density of water. Meyers thinks that by copying the toucan bill, we can create car panels that are stronger, lighter, and safer. Toucan Sam was right; today we’re all following his nose.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.