ALEJUELA, Costa Rica — Grecia has the saddest smile of all his feathered friends in Costa Rica.
The 1-year-old toucan’s upper beak got hacked off by a group of miscreants who left the bird for dead after ruining his handsome face. For the past four months, the half-beaked bird has been nursed back to health at Costa Rica’s Animal Rescue Bird Zoo, where he’s learned to feed himself by scooping and guzzling mashed fruit with his lower mandible — not unlike a pelican.
But Grecia’s unsightly underbite could soon be a thing of the past. Thanks to the collective ingenuity of Costa Rica’s tech sector, and $10,000 in funding from an Indiegogo campaign, the injured bird is about to get equipped with a new 3D-printed prosthetic beak — or “toucan dentures,” as nobody has called it.
The plastic beak, scheduled to be attached to Grecia’s stub in June, will be the first procedure of its kind in Latin America, and one of the first 3D-printed beaks attempted anywhere the world. Costa Rica, which is positively beamish about most things, is positively beamish about the opportunity to showcase its twin passions for nature and technology.
“It’s really special to be able to help an injured toucan with 3D printing technology and show the world that Costa Rica has the skills and potential to do something like this,” said Mariela Fonseca, manager of Elementos 3D, one of the three Costa Rican firms working to build the toucan a prosthetic chomper.
The challenges to such a procedure are manifold, and the blueprints nonexistent. Even the mechanics of a toucan’s beak — a natural marvel of light-weight construction and nut-cracking strength — were a bit of a mystery until a little more than a decade ago.
Finding the right balance between heft and bite is only the first challenge in making a prosthesis for a bird whose sizable beak is only 1/20 of its total weight. The second challenge is how to affix the considerably protrusive attachment to a bird’s face without causing it considerable discomfort or resentment.
The initial plan was to attach the fake beak with pins. But veterinarian Carmen Soto quickly nixed that because the stump of Grecia’s beak is not dead cartilage, rather a tender area of blood vessels and nerve endings.
(Sadly — and parenthetically— that means that the savage hack job on Grecia’s beak most likely caused the bird unspeakable pain. Although part of a toucan’s beak is made of the same keratin protein that makes up fingernails, imagine having a group of teenagers hold you down and rip off your fingernails at the cuticles. Now imagine that happening to your face.)
The revised plan is to use a type of denture-type adhesive to affix the base of the prosthetic beak to Grecia’s muzzle (Fixodent and forget it). The hollow part of the beak — the long curvy part used for sniffing out Fruit Loops — will be designed as an detachable extension that can be easily removed for cleaning, or replaced when the young bird outgrows his old prothesis.
The goal, Soto says, is to make the implant as comfortable and stress-free as possible. And hopefully, Grecia will warm to the idea of eating with a plastic beak.
There’s a risk he might reject the plan entirely. Soto notes that Grecia has already adapted with remarkable ease to life without an upper beak. The toucan has learned to bite with the strong side of his mouth, and has become so adept at slurping fruit that his weight gain has become an issue of mild concern around the zookeepers’ water cooler.
“We have to control his weight now because he’s in a cage and doesn’t get exercise,” Soto says. “And he eats a lot! We don’t want him to get too fat.”
Adjusting to a new life with a false beak will mean relearning how to eat again with a foreign utensil — sorta like learning to use chopsticks. Grecia might even decide he’s happy the way he is, with only half a beak.
“If we put the beak on and it stresses him out or causes any pain, it’ll be better to take it off again,” Soto told Fusion. “Because instead of improving his life, we’d be doing the opposite. But we have to try in any event.”
The only matter that’s not settled is what color they should make the new beak. And given the fact that Grecia is going to become a tourist attraction with his new beak, they might even want to consider giving him a rainbow-colored Fruit Loop bill, turning him into a real-life Toucan Sam.
“We haven’t decided on colors yet,” Soto says with a laugh. “I guess we could do that, but we’d have to change his name!”