While iterative 3D printing technology is helpful when making 3D printed prosthetics for humans, it’s also been used to give many of our feathered friends a new lease on life. Birds use their beaks to clean their feathers, defend themselves, build nests, and eat, so the consequences can be difficult, and even devastating, for a bird that’s lost or was born without its beak. Many different types of birds, from toucans, eagles, and cranes to cockatoos, macaws, and pelicans, have been able to survive thanks to 3D printed beaks. Now, a 27-year-old Abyssinian ground hornbill named Karl, who has spent the last five years at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (better known as the National Zoo), is joining their ranks with his own 3D printed beak.
According to the National Zoo, Abyssinian ground hornbills are native to Africa and are roughly the size of a wild turkey. These birds do not have teeth, and they eat by scooping up small prey from the ground with their beaks, flipping it into the air, and swallowing it whole; in the wild, they’ll eat cobras, lizards, mongooses, and even insects, seeds, and fruit. Karl has a worn down lower beak, which prevented him from picking up anything smaller than a mouse, and it was even difficult to manage that feat – he had to angle his head to the side, shuffle along the ground, and scoop to get anything to eat.
“We decided we needed to do something to resolve that, and we came up with a hoof acrylic product,” said Gil Myers, assistant curator at the National Zoo. “Unfortunately, some of the prosthetics weren’t able to last long term.”
The prosthetics the zoo staff originally worked on were not naturalistic enough for Karl, and fell off about every three weeks. Thanks to a collaborative effort with the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Museum of Natural History, the zoo staff got to work developing a stronger, precision engineered replacement beak for Karl. They worked with museum specialists to find the skull of a hornbill who lived at the zoo in the 1930s, and 3D scanned the skull to use as a model for a 3D printed beak, which gave the team “a good starting point.”
Karl’s beak was measured, and several test prints were completed on a Form 2 3D printer. After about five months of test prints and modifying the fit and design, the team had a winner. Karl was safely sedated and intubated, and then the zoo staff glued on his shiny new beak.
The procedure went well, according to National Zoo veterinarian James Steeil, and the fit seemed good, but the final test was yet to come.
“I like the way that one fits,” Steeil said when the prosthetic was glued to Karl’s beak, then sanded down. “Fingers crossed it stays on.”
Karl has adapted to using his new 3D printed beak just fine, and is once again picking up small prey and flinging it into the air to eat for his meals. Karl’s keepers hope that the prosthetic continues to work and does not fall off like the previous beaks did.
“With building this prosthesis, it will provide Karl with a better avenue to eat for himself and hopefully propagate the species,” Steeil said.
Discuss in the 3D Printed Beak forum at 3DPB.com.