A toucan’s beak, like a musician’s hands, is its entire life. In December 2014, a group of kids in Alajuela, Costa Rica shattered the beak of a Black-mandibled Toucan in a brutal assault. Usually a lost beak would be a death sentence, but now Grecia (as the bird was subsequently named by ZooAve Rescue), may get a replacement—made on a 3-D printer.
It’s exceedingly difficult to create a prosthetic for such a delicate part of a bird’s body; a toucan’s beak is a technological marvel, composed of minimal bone struts filled with spongy keratin, leaving it both strong and light.
ZooAve believes 3-D printing a custom prosthesis for Grecia is the answer. “Seems like the only solution is to create a prosthesis,” writes ZooAve on their IndieGoGo page, “but the government doesn't have funds dedicated to saving one single animal.” So ZooAve took the problem to the people.
To fund the project, Luciano Lacayo and the ZooAve team posted it to the popular crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. They hit their target of $5,000 in less than 48 hours. At press time, the project has attracted nearly twice its goal, with 14 days remaining before the campaign closes. (All extra money will be donated to the ZooAve Rescue Center in Alajuela, Costa Rica.)
3-D printed animal prosthetics has been done before, although mostly for dogs, which don’t have the precise weight and flexibility requirements of birds. Some eagles have received prosthetic beaks, too, but given the relatively small size of an eagle’s beak, that was less of a technical challenge than creating one for a toucan. So ZooAve contacted OrthoPets, a veterinary prosthetics company based in Denver, Colorado, working with them to create a replacement custom-designed to fit onto Grecia’s beak. The new rig, made out of durable, lightweight plastic, will require several parts, attached with various screws and tongues to Grecia’s lower mandible. Once installed, Grecia’s new beak will last him the rest of his life.
Without getting Grecia fixed up, the bird has no chance at even a halfway-decent quality of life. A toucan’s beak is like nature’s Swiss Army Knife: Reaching up to eight inches long, it’s a helpful tool for scaring off predators like jaguars and margays or intimidating smaller birds like oropendolas and smaller, related toucan species that compete for nesting habitat and food.
The birds can also use their beaks as built-in grappling hooks, taking advantage of their lightweight build and serrated edges to snagg slippery fruits, such as passionfruit, that make up a major part of their diets. The beak is crucial for thermoregulation as well—its surface area is so large that increasing bloodflow to it cools the toucan down in the same way that panting does a dog. And of course, a toucan’s breeding prowess depends on its beak, too: No way Grecia could court a female without his flashy yellow-striped beak.
Grecia will likely still have to remain in captivity, to ensure that his new beak will allow him to feed and protect himself. But that’s still a much happier ending for the toucan than ever could have been possible before.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Grecia as a Yellow-throated Toucan. While he in does indeed sport a yellow-plumed throat, the correct species name is Black-mandibled Toucan. While some groups recognize "Yellow-throated" Toucans as a subspecies of the Black-mandibled, the American Ornithologists' Union does not.