Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Bald eagle tongues and beaks!

This blog was inspired by RRP Director John Howe, who was reviewing footage of Mom and Dad feeding eaglets and was delighted by the dexterity of their beaks and tongues. I had never blogged about that topic and it was very fun to learn about just how specialized some beaks and tongues are!

We know that bird beaks are specialized for feeding and daily tasks. Birds of prey have strong, curved beaks with sharp edges to help them tear meat. Falcons specialize even further, adding a tomial tooth to help them kill prey. Dabbling ducks have tiny, comb-like structures on their beaks to strain small animals, insects and plants from water and mud, while piscivorous ducks have saw-like structures to help them hold on to struggling fish. But what about bird tongues or, more specifically, bald eagle tongues? Are they specialized as well?

Let's start by taking a look at Mom and Dad's tongues!
Dad's Tongue

Mom's Tongue

At first glance, bald eagle tongues look somewhat similar to ours. They are pinkish, relatively narrow, fit nicely between the sharp ridges of their beaks, and are flexible. They are short enough that eagles can't easily bite their tongues, although they can stick them out. Unlike us, bald eagles have two barbs, or rear-directed papillae, to help lift and pull food items to the back of their long mouths: a relatively common feature in bird tongues.

Although birds of prey don't have specialized tongues, their tongues (and beaks) are packed with mechanoreceptors that respond to pressure, distortion (think of an eagle stretching its tongue or biting into bone), temperature, texture, and vibration. Merkel cells are sensitive to very fine changes in touch, pressure, and temperature. These tonic cells keep providing information to tell Mom and Dad exactly where their beaks and tongues are and what they are doing. Phasic Herbst and Ruffini cells sound an alarm to let Mom and Dad know that something has just happened. Herbst cells are sensitive to vibration, pressure changes (I grabbed or dropped an object), and texture changes. Ruffini cells are sensitive to stretching, distortion, and temperature (I just bumped something warm and hard like an eaglet's beak and mouth).

These sensors aren't evenly distributed throughout a bird's beak. While I couldn't find any studies on birds of prey, studies have been done on quail and ducks. Sensory cells in a quail's beak are distributed like this:

Cadual BeakMiddle BeakCranial BeakBeak TipCell Type

Bald eagles have considerably different diets and lifestyles than quail, but both ducks and quail concentrate sensors in the cranial areas of their beaks (think of a falcon's tomial tooth or Mom and Dad's tomial ridge). Once a bird has allowed something past the tip of its beak, it has a lot of decisions to make about how to respond to it and what to do with it. Given that quail and ducks are preccocial omnivores and bald eagles are altricial carnivores, I would love to see a study on bald eagle beaks.

Thanks to their beak blinders, bald eagles have a blind spot directly in front of them, which means they can't always see their young during feeding. So how do they select food, find the eaglets, and get food into their mouths? Immediate and ongoing sensory feedback helps parents and young align beaks, and tells new hatchlings to open their mouths wide for food delivery! Once both beaks are in the correct position, Mom or Dad use their sensitive, flexible tongues to carefully push food into the eaglet's waiting mouth. Changes in pressure, temperature, and texture help the eagles change course in mid-delivery, detect dropped food, find eaglets, and pull back as needed. Mom and Dad also use their tongues and beaks to detect and avoid feeding young hatchlings chunks of bone, large pieces of fur, or sharp fins that could cause them to choke.

How do Mom and Dad manipulate food so well? Check out the top photo, which shows a side view of Dad's tongue. We can clearly see that its fleshy tip rests on a muscular stalk. As described in Laura Erickson's excellent blog on bird tongues, this stalk controls Dad's tongue to manipulate food items. Dad can stretch and tip his tongue forward to feed eaglets, pull and tip it backwards to move food into his mouth, or move his tongue to one side or another as needed. His flexible two-stage tongue and rear-directed papillae give him incredible control, and the sensory cells packed into the tip of his beak and tongue provide the feedback he needs to feed eaglets...even when he can't quite see where they are. Annoyed with Mom or Dad over dropped food or missed beak-loading opportunities? Imagine trying to feed eaglets using your just tongue and nose! The video below shows just how delicate they are when it comes to feeding hatchlings.

Did you know? 
Bird banders can use the color of a bird's mouth and tongue to help age birds. Younger birds may have spots or bands to help parents with food targeting. Colored tongues in some adult birds can aid mating displays and/or signal a warning to other birds.

Understanding a species' behavior and diet helps us understand how its tongue and mouth evolved. Check out Laura Erickson's blog More About Bird Tongues Than A Normal Person Would Want To Know for a great look and description of some bird tongues! You know you want to learn more!

Things that helped me learn and write about this topic