Toucans, with their simple black, yellow and white plumage and iconic orange beaks are no less than ambassadors of South American rainforests.
Have you ever wondered why they have such big beaks? Read on to find out –
Why do toucans have such a big, long, and colorful beak?
It was initially believed that toucans used their beaks to attract mates. The bird with the biggest, longest and brightest beak would be proficient in attracting a mate and copulating. Darwin said this too.
Since then, scientists have been able to observe these magnificent birds more closely and they have come to the conclusion that a toucan’s beak isn’t just for show.
The beak works for a toucan in the manner a radiator works for a vehicle. It controls the temperature in the toucan’s body depending on the weather around them.
What is a toucan’s beak/bill made of?
Toucan’s beak is one of the largest beaks compared to their body size. These beaks are light and strong so they do not pose as a hindrance to these birds.
The beak is made from layers of keratin – the same substance which makes up human hair and nails. The beak is made up of tiles of keratin that are fastened together. Keratin is a light and sturdy material so these properties are seen in the beaks.
The inside of the beaks is made of a foam-like substance that is made of bony fibers and membranes.
The upper beak is fixed to the skull and is stationary while the lower beak works as hinges and opens and closes the bird’s mouth.
What is a toucan beak used for?
To attract mates
With their big, long, and colorful beaks, male toucans try to impress females. The bird with the largest and brightest beak will be able to attract females and mate with her.
The beak plays an important role in the courtship too. A male toucan tries to woo a female toucan by bringing her a berry, nut, or small piece of food in his beak.
If the female accepts the morsel, the courtship continues and leads to mating.
This was written about by Darwin and was believed by him to be the only practical purpose of the incredibly large beak of a toucan.
Toucan beaks have a unique feature that scientists have discovered. These large beaks help regulate body temperature, working sort of how a radiator works in a car.
Scientists used thermal imaging devices to check the response of toucans in different temperature conditions. The birds were placed in a temperature-regulated chamber.
When the temperature in the chamber was below about 60 degrees F, the beak was a little cooler. This means that the bleed vessels in the beaks were constricted to prevent loss of heat from the beak.
As temperatures were increased to above 70 degrees F, the beak became warmer as blood vessels relaxed and more blood flowed through.
The most important use of a beak for any bird is for feeding. Toucans are no exception to this.
These birds use their long beaks to gather food and they have the ability to reach food that birds with short beaks can not grab.
The serrated edges of the beak help them maintain a good grip on fruits, berries, nuts, and small animals while they are flying.
The birds usually carry the food at the tip of their beak and then toss it to the back of their throat to swallow it.
Living in the dense rainforests, toucans need to look out for bigger animals that may try to feed on them or their young.
The large beaks can scare away small animals. If needed, toucans can also peck at predators with their beaks and inflict injuries to protect themselves.
How do toucans see with their big beaks?
Toucans have no problems in sight due to their large beaks. The beaks are relatively narrow. They have eyes that are set on either side of their head, so they have a very wide field of vision.
When they need to look at something that is directly in front of them, all they have to do is tilt their head to the side.
Do toucans have long tongues inside their long beaks?
Yes! Toucans have long tongues inside their long beaks. The long tongue is feather-like, that is it is light and has bristles along the sides. This helps the birds hold and catch food and swallow it.
Would a toucan’s beak break while biting?
Under normal conditions, a toucan’s beak will not break while biting because it is made of very durable and sturdy keratin fibers.
A simple act like biting will not cause any harm to the beak – even if the bird is biting something hard.
A beak may break if the bird is trampled on by a much larger animal or due to an extremely harsh impact.
The beak may also be weakened and become prone to breakage if the bird is severely malnourished or sick.
How strong is a toucan’s beak?
Toucan beaks are very strong – are composed of keratin and other such light, but strong fibers.
The beak is considered an architectural marvel because it is almost half of the bird’s size but it is only one-twentieth of the bird’s weight.
This allows toucans to fly, feed and walk without any hindrance from their long beaks.
Can a toucan’s beak cut human flesh?
Even though toucan beaks are so long and serrated, they usually cannot cut human flesh.
Due to their long length, the birds cannot exert much pressure using their beak so a bite can hurt but it most likely won’t cut you or draw blood.
Interesting facts about a toucan’s beak:
- Toucans have beaks that can reach 8 or 9 inches in length. This is the largest beak of any bird in relation to body size. Toucans have an average body length of 25 inches.
- Toco toucans (the one you’ll see on a box of fruit loops) have the largest beaks among toucans.
- Even though they are so large, toucan beaks are very light and sturdy. This ensures that these birds can fly and walk without hindrance from their beaks.
- Their bright beaks also help them camouflage, or blend into their surroundings, in the colorful rainforests. This protects them from predators.
- A toucan’s beak is made of keratin and has microscopic air holes in it. These are what make the beak so light.
- Inside these long beaks are long tongues that can reach 6 inches in length!
Toucans’ big, bright beaks are not just for show. It was earlier believed that the beaks were significant only in the mating process. However, recent studies and research have shown that toucan beaks pose an evolutionary advantage.
These beaks can help regulate temperature so that these birds can survive comfortably in the hot, humid climates as well as cooler climates too. The bright orange and red beaks are also useful in gathering food.