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Concept: Woodpecker


Woodpeckers experience forces up to 1200-1400 g while pecking. It is assumed due to evolutionary adaptations, the woodpecker is immune to brain injury. This assumption has led to the use of the woodpecker as a model in the development of sports safety equipment such as football helmets. However, it is unknown at this time if the woodpecker brain develops neuro-trauma in relation to the high g-forces experienced during pecking. The brains of 10 ethanol preserved woodpeckers and 5 ethanol preserved red-winged black bird experimental controls were examined using Gallyas silver stain and anti-phospho-tau. The results demonstrated perivascular and white matter tract silver-positive deposits in eight out of the 10 woodpecker brains. The tau positive accumulations were seen in white matter tracts in 2 of the 3 woodpeckers examined. No staining was identified in control birds. The negative staining of controls birds contrasted with the diffuse positive staining woodpecker sections suggest the possibility that pecking may induce the accumulation of tau in the woodpecker brain. Further research is needed to better understand the relationship.

Concepts: Traumatic brain injury, Bird, White matter, Staining, Silver stain, Negative stain, Woodpecker, Phosphotungstic acid


Animals-including conservation biologists-use acoustic signals to recognise and track individuals. The majority of research on this phenomenon has focused on sounds generated by vocal organs (e.g., larynx or syrinx). However, animals also produce sounds using other parts of the body, such as the wings, tail, legs, or bill. In this study we focused on non-syrinx vocalisation of the great spotted woodpecker, called drumming. Drumming consists of strokes of a bill on a tree in short, repeated series, and is performed by both males and females to attract mates and deter rivals. Here, we considered whether the great spotted woodpecker’s drumming patterns are sex-specific and whether they enable individual identification. We recorded drumming of 41 great spotted woodpeckers (26 males, 9 females, 6 unsexed). An automatic method was used to measure the intervals between succeeding strokes and to count strokes within a drumming roll. The temporal parameters of drumming that were analysed here had lower within- than between-individual coefficients of variation. Discriminant function analyses correctly assigned 70-88% of rolls to the originating individual, but this depended on whether all individuals were analysed together or split into males and females. We found slight, but significant, differences between males and females in the length of intervals between strokes-males drummed faster than females-but no difference in the number of strokes within a roll. Our study revealed that temporal patterns of drumming in the great spotted woodpecker cannot be used for unambiguous sex determination. Instead, discrimination among individuals may be possible based on the intervals between strokes and the number of strokes within a roll. Therefore, it is possible that differences in the temporal parameters of drumming may be used by birds to identify each other, as well as by researchers to aid in census and monitoring tasks.

Concepts: Male, Bird, Sex, Individualism, Individual, Individual rights, Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker


Group size predicts brain size in primates and some other mammal groups, but no such relationship has been found in birds. Instead, stable pair-bonding and bi-parental care have been identified as correlates of larger brains in birds. We investigated the relationship between brain size and social system within the family Picidae, using phylogenetically controlled regression analysis. We found no specific effect of duration or strength of pair-bonds, but brain sizes were systematically smaller in species living in long-lasting social groups of larger sizes. Group-living may only present a cognitive challenge in groups in which members have individually competitive relationships; we therefore propose that groups functioning for cooperative benefit may allow disinvestment in expensive brain tissue.

Concepts: Brain, Species, Human brain, Bird, Piciformes, Woodpecker, Picidae, Antillean Piculet


Species distributions are limited by a complex array of abiotic and biotic factors. In general, abiotic (climatic) factors are thought to explain species' broad geographic distributions, while biotic factors regulate species' abundance patterns at local scales. We used species distribution models to test the hypothesis that a biotic interaction with a tree, the Colombian oak (Quercus humboldtii), limits the broad-scale distribution of the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) in the Northern Andes of South America. North American populations of Acorn Woodpeckers consume acorns from Quercus oaks and are limited by the presence of Quercus oaks. However, Acorn Woodpeckers in the Northern Andes seldom consume Colombian oak acorns (though may regularly drink sap from oak trees) and have been observed at sites without Colombian oaks, the sole species of Quercus found in South America. We found that climate-only models overpredicted Acorn Woodpecker distribution, suggesting that suitable abiotic conditions (e.g. in northern Ecuador) exist beyond the woodpecker’s southern range margin. In contrast, models that incorporate Colombian oak presence outperformed climate-only models and more accurately predicted the location of the Acorn Woodpecker’s southern range margin in southern Colombia. These findings support the hypothesis that a biotic interaction with Colombian oaks sets Acorn Woodpecker’s broad-scale geographic limit in South America, probably because Acorn Woodpeckers rely on Colombian oaks as a food resource (possibly for the oak’s sap rather than for acorns). Although empirical examples of particular plants limiting tropical birds' distributions are scarce, we predict that similar biotic interactions may play an important role in structuring the geographic distributions of many species of tropical montane birds with specialized foraging behavior.

Concepts: Colombia, South America, Nut, Oak, Acorn, Lithocarpus, Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker


Resource competition is one potential behavioral mechanism by which invasive species can impact native species, but detecting this competition can be difficult due to the interactions that variable environmental conditions can have on species behavior. This is particularly the case in urban habitats where the disturbed environment can alter natural behavior from that in undisturbed habitats. The rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), is an increasingly common invasive species, predominantly associated with large urban centers. Using an experimental approach, we tested the behavioral responses of native garden birds in response to the presence of a rose-ringed parakeet versus the presence of a similarly sized and dominant native bird, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). Parakeet presence significantly reduced feeding rates and increased vigilance among native birds compared with our control treatments. Of visits made by native birds in the presence of a parakeet, feeding was more likely to occur in sites within the parakeet range compared with sites outside, suggesting some habituation of native birds has occurred following prior exposure to parakeets but overall foraging behavior is still disrupted. The results of our study suggest that nonnative species can have complex and subtle impacts on native fauna and show that a nonnative competitor can impact native species simply through their presence near resources.

Concepts: Introduced species, Parrots, Alexandrine Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Woodpecker, Psittacula, Dendrocopos, Mauritius Parakeet


Two types of periodic and transient motions of large woodpeckers are considered. A drumming woodpecker may be modeled as a harmonic oscillator with a periodic forcing function. The transient behavior that occurs after the forcing is turned off suggests that the double knocks of Campephilus woodpeckers may be modeled in terms of a harmonic oscillator with an impulsive forcing, and this hypothesis is consistent with audio and video recordings. Wingbeats are another type of periodic and transient motion of large woodpeckers. A model for the flap rate in cruising flight is applied to the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). During a brief transient just after taking off, the wing motion and flap rate of a large woodpecker may not be the same as in cruising flight. These concepts are relevant to videos that contain evidence for the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Concepts: Woodpeckers, Woodpecker, Dryocopus, Campephilus, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Imperial Woodpecker, Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker


Molecular phylogenetic studies of woodpeckers (Picidae) have generally focused on relationships within specific clades or have sampled sparsely across the family. We compared DNA sequences of six loci from 203 of the 217 recognized species of woodpeckers to construct a comprehensive tree of intrafamilial relationships. We recovered many known, but also numerous unknown, relationships among clades and species. We found, for example, that the three picine tribes are related as follows (Picini, (Campephilini, Melanerpini)) and that the genus Dinopium is paraphyletic. We used the tree to analyze rates of diversification and biogeographic patterns within the family. Diversification rate increased on two occasions during woodpecker history. We also tested diversification rates between temperate and tropical species but found no significant difference. Biogeographic analysis supported an Old World origin of the family and identified at least six independent cases of New World-Old World sister relationships. In light of the tree, we discuss how convergence, mimicry, and potential cases of hybridization have complicated woodpecker taxonomy.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Biology, Species, Bird, Phylogenetics, Biological classification, Woodpecker


The number of species that specialize in pre-dispersal seed predation is relatively small. Examples of specialized pre-dispersal seed predators adapted to feeding on closed cones include vertebrate species like Crossbills, Squirrels, Nutcrackers and Woodpeckers. Seed predation selects against certain phenotypic features of cones and favors another phenotypic features. In this study, we document preferences of the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) for specific traits in the cones of Norway spruce (Picea abies) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris). We found that the Great Spotted Woodpecker prefers to feed on medium sized Norway spruce cones. The results suggest a disruptive selection that favors the extreme cone lengths in Norway spruce. In Scots pine, the woodpeckers avoided cones with large apophyses. Further, the selectivity for the specific characteristics of the cones is probably related to the configuration of the anvil, a place at which woodpeckers extract seeds from the cones. We think that the Great Spotted Woodpecker preferences in relation to the morphological characteristics of cones are a key to the design of the anvil in order to maximize the use of it as a tool for processing cones of both the Norway spruce and the Scots pine.

Concepts: Spruce, Pinophyta, Christmas tree, Pine, Pinus classification, Pinaceae, Woodpecker, Dendrocopos


Cooperative breeding is generally considered an adaptation to ecological constraints on dispersal and independent breeding, usually due to limited breeding opportunities. Although benefits of cooperative breeding are typically thought of in terms of increased mean reproductive success, it has recently been proposed that this phenomenon may be a bet-hedging strategy that reduces variance in reproductive success (fecundity variance) in populations living in highly variable environments. We tested this hypothesis using long-term data on the polygynandrous acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). In general, fecundity variance decreased with increasing sociality, at least when controlling for annual variation in ecological conditions. Nonetheless, decreased fecundity variance was insufficient to compensate for reduced per capita reproductive success of larger, more social groups, which typically suffered lower estimated mean fitness. We did, however, find evidence that sociality in the form of larger group size resulted in increased fitness in years following a small acorn crop due to reduced fecundity variance. Bet-hedging, although not the factor driving sociality in general, may play a role in driving acorn woodpecker group living when acorns are scarce and ecological conditions are poor.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Evolutionary biology, Fitness, Melanerpes, Reproductive success, Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker


The accumulation of DNA sequence data in public repositories allows for phylogenetic inference on unprecedented taxonomic scales using supermatrix approaches. Careful analysis of available data allows strategic augmentation with new sequences in order to maximize taxonomic sampling and coverage of informative loci. I inferred relationships among 179 species (76%) in the avian family Picidae (woodpeckers, piculets, and wrynecks), using publicly available sequence data supplemented with targeted sequencing to increase species-level and locus-level sampling and maximize resolution. Results of these analyses generally corroborate previous molecular studies, with consensus on the membership of most genera and tribes. However, several newly placed taxa show surprising affinities, and several genera as currently delineated appear to be paraphyletic. Relationships among major clades of Picidae remain poorly resolved, particularly among the three lineages of piculets, the unusual woodpecker genus Hemicircus, and the remaining woodpeckers, and among the major groups of true woodpeckers (Picinae). Phylogenomic approaches may be necessary to resolve these deep relationships.

Concepts: Biology, Species, Bird, Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Woodpecker, Antillean Piculet