Why a woodpecker would win in a fight with Mike Tyson?
Obviously, both parties in this fight possess a number of advantages, such as Mike weighing in at hundreds of times the weight of the bird, with a much bigger reach, or the bird being able to fly, small things like this. However, the characteristic I will discuss in this writeup is the ability to take a punch. Both fighters have extensive training of receiving heavy blows to the head, but who is the better training partner; Lennox Lewis or a tree?
The durability of the human brain and body has been investigated for centuries. Some of the most barbaric tests were conducted in the fifties by the US Air Force, investigating the effects of sudden decelerations and impacts. In some of these tests, human subjects experienced decelerations of up to 25g, with no lasting side effects (obviously there were some unpleasant short term effects however). Also, in numerous racing accidents and plane crashes, there are tales of people surviving hundreds of g's. Surely this sort of sturdiness can't be matched by a bird?
It has long been a topic of interest how a woodpecker manages to avoid serious brain damage while incessantly hammering on trees. The knocking sound produced by this act is used as part of a mating ritual, so unsurprisingly, male woodpeckers spend a large proportion of their time smashing their beaks into solid wood, at high speed, over and over again. The matter was investigated as early as 1976, when The Lancet published some initial observations on the structure of a woodpecker's skull and brain. The factors they mention include the spongy bone closely surrounding the woodpecker's brain which absorbs some of the impact, the muscles in the neck of the bird which contract on impact to reduce the jarring effect and structures which extend from the base of the tongue to encase the brain, further cushioning the shock.
However, it was an experiment performed in 1979 that really uncovered the woodpecker's secret. By using high-speed cameras, the team discovered that the bird not only had a very forceful strike, it was very accurate too. The brain is most easily damaged by shearing or twisting motions, but the bird's beak always hit absolutely perpendicular to the wood, minimising these harmful skewed forces. Also, the small brain means the mass is very small compared to the surface area, so that an impact can be spread out over a large area, which reduces damage locally. It is factors like this that allows the woodpecker to endure impacts of up to 1200g with apparently no side-effects whatsoever!
Although Mike Tyson no doubt has a more advanced fighting style, a better jab and more dedication to the sport, the fact that the woodpecker can take blows fifty times harder than a human and walk (well, fly) away unharmed leaves me no option but to predict the woodpecker's victory in a fair fight.
New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/lastword/article.jsp?id=lw622