Mutilated toucan gets 3D-printed beak prosthesis

By Luiza Bandeira
BBC Brasil

  • Published
Tieta with part of her beak missingImage source, Danielle Aires
Image caption,
Tieta was rescued from an animal fair in Rio de Janeiro

In a ground-breaking project, a Brazilian toucan which lost the upper part of its beak while being trafficked has been fitted with a prosthesis made with a 3D printer.

The female bird, named Tieta, was rescued from a wildlife animal fair in Rio de Janeiro.

It is not clear whether she lost the upper part of her beak after being mistreated by animal smugglers or in a fight with a bigger toucan she was locked up with inside a small box.

The project was co-ordinated by wildlife management group Instituto Vida Livre and involved three Brazilian universities.

Plastic replacement

The prosthetic is made of plastic, covered with nail polish and sealed with a special polymer made from the castor oil plant.

Image source, Gustavo Cleinman
Image caption,
Researchers used the latest technology to design and produce the prosthesis
Image source, Gustavo Cleinman
Image caption,
The beak is made of plastic and only weighs 4g

Taciana Sherlock from the Brazilian wildlife control agency Ibama said the toucan was rescued in March, malnourished and missing its beak.

Black-beaked toucans like Tieta, which are native to Rio and not endangered, can cost up to $5,000 (£3,180) when sold legally, according to Ms Sherlock.

She says that before the surgery Tieta was using the lower part of the beak to throw food into the air and trying to grab it.

She only succeeded once in every three attempts.

Hungry for maggots

Tieta was fitted with the prosthesis on 27 July.

"It took her three days to realise she had it again," says Instituto Vida Livre Director Roched Seba.

"We were feeding her fruit and she was ignoring the new beak. But when we gave her live animals, like maggots and cockroaches, she ate normally immediately," he explains.

"I believe she had that kind of food when she was free, before losing the beak. So it activated a core memory," he adds.

It took researchers three months to design the beak but it took only two hours for the printer to print it. - the beak weighs approximately 4g and it is 4cm (1.6in) long.

Image source, Gustavo Cleinman
Image caption,
The prosthesis is 4cm long and replaces the upper part of the beak

Tieta herself only weighs 300g.

Designer Gustavo Cleinman from Rio de Janeiro's Federal University says the biggest challenge was to create a light and resilient prosthesis.

He used the beak of a dead animal as a model and adapted it to resemble Tieta's original beak more closely.

Hope for mating

The team was breaking new ground with this project.

Although another group of researchers was creating a prosthetic beak for another injured toucan in Sao Paulo, the two teams were unaware of each other's work.

Tieta's surgery only took 40 minutes to perform but was not without risks, veterinarian Thiago Muniz says.

Media caption,

The toucan lost part of its beak while being trafficked

He explains that the prosthesis will allow her to eat independently and also help her access glands on her body that keep her feathers waterproof.

With the help of the prosthesis, Tieta will also be able to feed any chicks she might have in the future.

But Ms Sherlock says that unfortunately it will not allow her to be released into the wild.

"She wouldn't be able to live an independent life, even in captivity," she says.

Wildlife control agency Ibama wants to send her to an educational zoo to create awareness about animal trafficking, but they have not yet settled on one.

What is certain is that wherever she is sent she will be joined there by another toucan, which was also rescued from animal traffickers and sent to Ibama.

The male bird also has a problem with his beak.

The researchers hope Tieta and the male toucan will eventually mate. Their chicks would be released into the wild, Ibama says.