UCSD materials scientists discovered that the lightweight strength of the Toco Toucans beak is due to a matrix of bony fibers and drum-like membranes sandwiched between an outer layer of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn.
The beak has a hollow region in an interior region where the mechanical stresses were insignificant.
As a boy growing up in Brazil 40 years ago, Marc A. Meyers marveled at the lightweight toughness of toucan beaks that he occasionally found on the forest floor. Now a materials scientist and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, Meyers said makers of airplanes and automobiles may benefit from the first ever detailed engineering analysis of toucan beaks conducted in his lab.
“Our computer modeling shows that the beak is optimized to an amazing degree for high strength and very little weight,” said Meyers. “It’s almost as if the toucan has a deep knowledge of mechanical engineering.”
In a paper to be published Dec. 1 in Acta Materialia, Meyers and graduate students Yasuaki Seki and Matthew S. Schneider reported that the secret to the toucan beak’s lightweight strength is an unusual bio-composite. The interior of the beak is rigid "foam" made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes sandwiched between outer layers of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Just as the hook-shaped barbs on cockleburs inspired the development of Velcro, Meyers said the avian bio-composite could inspire the design of ultra-light aircraft and vehicle components with synthetic foams made with metals and polymers.
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