Ugly hornbills: their powerful skull can break a person's head

The Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Kalimantan are home to some of the most unusual birds in the world. They are called hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil) and are also known as helmeted hornbills. They are surprising in that they have huge and hard growths on their heads, which are used by the males during aerial battles. These birds are elusive, but many times people have seen the males take to the skies and collide head-on with each other at great speed. The winner gets respect, and the loser goes down in shame. Recently, scientists studied the skulls of these feathered creatures and found out how they manage not to lose consciousness after terrible collisions.

Ugly hornbills: their powerful skull can break a person's head. Hornbills have very large eyes that allow them to see well in the dark. Source: Photo.


  • 1 What hornbills look like
  • 2 Birds with a helmet on the head
  • 3 How the heads of birds are structured
  • 4 Expensive material for creating figurines

What do hornbills look like

Rhinoceros birds are quite large creatures, whose body length can reach 160 centimeters. They are covered with black feathers, and the skin color of these birds depends on the sex: females have blue, and males have red. They have white feathers on their chest and belly, but there are not many of them. The neck of hornbills is bare and wrinkled.

What hornbills look like. Close-up of a hornbill. Source: Photo.

Hornbill close up. Source:

The most prominent part of the body of the helmet-bearing kalao is the head. It has a helmet, which accounts for about 10% of the bird's weight. It consists of keratin, the material from which human hair and nails are made, and the horns and hooves of mammals. The casque of hornbills begins at the base of the beak and ends abruptly approximately in the middle.

What hornbills look like. A helmet on the head of a hornbill. Source: Photo.

A helmet on the head of a hornbill. Source:

Birds with a helmet on their head

The protective helmet of hornbills plays a very important role in their life. Males periodically participate in combat clashes in the air. They take off, pick up speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour, and hit their heads. This can happen several times until one of the opponents gives up and leaves the territory. Fights take place for dominance in the territory. The winner not only gets to live in a specific area, but also gets access to local food and nesting sites.

Birds with a helmet on their head. During the flight, hornbills gain enormous speed. Source: Photo.

When flying, hornbills gain tremendous speed. Source:

Flying at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour can be compared to driving a car around the city. A durable helmet on the head allows the birds to remain intact even after colliding with each other – rarely does anyone die from this. At this speed, they can injure a person or even break through a small wall (but not made of brick and plywood).

Scientists have long been interested in how the helmet of hornbills allows them to remain intact. Recently, the answer to this question was finally found.

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How do birds’ heads work?

The authors of the scientific publication IFL Science recently spoke about how the helmet of hornbills protects them from injury. Researcher Mason Dean used the skulls of unusual creatures to study using a CT scanner. He took bones of both male and female specimens as samples.

How the head of birds is structured. The helmet on the head of hornbills works as a shock absorber. Source: IFL Science. Photo.

The helmet on the head of hornbills acts as a shock absorber. Source: IFL Science

The study found that the helmet of hornbills consists of many trabeculae – elements made of thin strips of keratin. This system has a mesh structure that absorbs impact energy during a high-speed collision. In fact, it is a natural shock absorber in the head of birds, which protects them from fatal injuries.

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Expensive material for creating figures

The authors of the scientific work compared the structure of the helmet of hornbills with the bones of elephants. They really look alike, and poachers hunt these unusual birds to get their helmets and sell them on the black market.

These helmets are also known as “red ivory” and are valued by craftsmen for their malleability when carved. The material is used to make figurines, jewelry and other decorative items. Unfortunately, due to active hunting and destruction of habitats, hornbills are on the verge of complete extinction.

Expensive material for making figurines. Kalao birds are on the verge of extinction. Source: IFL Science. Photo.

Kalao birds are on the verge of complete extinction. Source: IFL Science

Based on this, it turns out that durable helmets are both a strength and a weakness of hornbills. During fights, the strong structure helps them save themselves from terrible injuries. But this same structure can be considered the reason for their death, because they are hunted by poachers.

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In addition to the helmeted kalaos, there are a huge number of other amazing birds in the world. For example, on our website there is a fascinating article about shoebills, human-sized birds that feed on baby crocodiles. You should also pay attention to our material about the African vulture, which flies higher than all other birds in the world.