The secretary bird is a fearsome, aggressive predator. Found on the open grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, it kills its prey by striking it with its claw using incredible speed and precision. A new study published in the journal Current Biology has revealed that this killing strike transfers five times the bird’s own weight to its hapless prey in one-hundredth of a second.
This 1.4-meter-tall (4.6-foot) bird, with its long, quill-like feathers that emerge from its head crest, certainly has a striking appearance, and its behavior is no less memorable. Despite its rather large wingspan, it prefers to hunt its prey on foot on its stilt-like legs.
And now, thanks to researchers from the Royal Veterinary College and Royal Holloway, University of London. We know just how powerful the birds’ lethal kicks can be. “These birds look amazingly dinosaur-like. They strut through open plains … looking down the whole time. They wait for a snake to be flushed out ahead of them. And then they suddenly run over and start to deliver the kick to the head,” the university’s Dr Steve Portugal tells BBC News.
To measure the force and speed of these ninja skills, the team turned to a secretary bird named Madeleine for help. A resident at the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire, Madeleine had already trained to attack rubber snakes for visitor displays. So her kicks could easily put to the test. Each strike averages around 195 newtons (43.8 pounds) of force, meaning that the “snake” experiences an impact many times in excess of the bird’s own weight. Remarkably, this force transferred to the snake within roughly 15 milliseconds. For comparison, blinking your own eyes takes ten times longer.
The average human male weighs 84 kilograms (185 pounds). If this person wanted to exhibit the same kind of force the secretary bird is capable of. He would have to stomp on the same snake with about 4,120 Newtons (926 pounds) of force. Which would cause him to break his own leg.
“A force plate, hidden under artificial grass, was placed in Madeleine’s aviary. And the rubber snake was pulled across the force plate. So they can measure impact from her kicks,” explains the Trust in a Facebook update. High-speed cameras recorded the action, allowing the researchers to analyse the footage afterward
Each of Madeleine’s strikes was measured for timing, speed and impact – and the results were pretty impressive. The force generated by the kicks was 195 Newtons, equivalent to five times the bird’s own body weight. That’s easily enough to kill prey in just a single blow.
And Madeleine’s speed was even more remarkable. “It took just 15 milliseconds to kick the snake in the head” says the Royal Veterinary College in a press release. To put that into perspective, it takes you around 150 milliseconds to blink your eyes. In just a fraction of that time, Madeleine can easily incapacitate a deadly mamba. Given that snakes (often venomous ones) are among the secretary bird’s favourite foods in the wild. This ability to strike quickly and with deadly force is essential for survival.
“These results highlight the incredible system that is the secretary bird’s hunting technique – immense force to kill [or] disable a venomous snake combined with surgical accuracy to catch a fast-moving invertebrate. It’s a biological marvel,” says the Trust’s Campbell Murn.
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Posted by King Animal World on Monday, November 27, 2017