13th Sep 2012

Beauty and the Beak

In 2005, a female bald eagle was found on the brink of starvation in Alaska—her upper beak had been shattered when a poacher shot her in the face, her tongue and sinuses exposed. In a land of plenty, she was forced to scrounge for food. Raptor specialist Jane Fink Cantwell, of the Birds of Prey NorthWest in Idaho, took in the eight-year-old eagle and dubbed her “Beauty”. She was nursed back to health, but it became clear that her destroyed beak was too badly damaged to grow back. Euthanasia was recommended, but Cantwell wouldn’t give up, and soon her miracle came in the form Nate Calvin, a mechanical engineer, who offered create a prosthetic beak. He made a mould of her shattered upper mandible and laser-scanned it, which enabled him to make changes in a 3D modelling program—then, he 3D-printed it using a nylon-based polymer. A team of scientists, engineers, and medical specialists then began the installation. They fitted a titanium mount onto Beauty’s beak, then glued on the prosthetic beak using techniques similar to fitting human dentures—Calvin even employed the help of his personal dentist. Beauty was soon able to drink water and preen her feathers independently for the first time in years. New growth means that the beak must be constantly readjusted and refitted, so it isn’t yet anchored firmly enough for Beauty to return to the wild—but the technology has given her a second chance at life.

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