Saved by the bill: 3D-printed beak gives Karl the hornbill a new lease on life

An Abyssinian ground hornbill at Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian’s National Zoo can feed himself once again, courtesy of a new 3D-printed prosthetic beak.

Having been left without his lower beak, due to wear and tear over time, the 27-year-old animal was unable to properly eat. However, a collaboration between the zoo’s animal, veterinary, graphics, and IT departments, as well as the Museum of Natural History, created a new photopolymer resin beak for him with added high-impact strength.

“Karl is doing fantastic,” Gilbert Myers, assistant curator at the National Zoo, told Digital Trends. “Before adding the prosthetic, Karl had to adapt and figure out how to pick up daily food items offered by his animal caretakers. Initially, he was fed multiple times per day, carefully monitored daily to make sure he was consuming enough and was weighed weekly to confirm he was maintaining appropriate body condition for his species. Although [this] was successful, he was limited to picking up larger diet items such as mice and meatballs, but unable to pick up smaller items such as mealworms and crickets. It was important to us that Karl was able to select what he wanted and when he wanted it. Now, Karl is not only able to consume any diet item that his caretakers provide, but he can hunt for earthworms, insects, frogs, toads, snakes, and small mammals that wander through his zoo habitat.”

The new 3D-printed prosthesis was modeled on the skull of a hornbill who lived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in the 1930s. The computer-aided design model was then 3D printed using a Formlabs printer and carefully attached to its new owner — to great success.

“Having a fully functional beak not only benefits Karl, but any future hornbills,” Myers said. “Ground hornbills are monogamous and male and females form strong pair bonds. This translates into strong courting behaviors involving beak slapping and presenting food to the female during the breeding season, supplying food to its mate when nesting, and helping to raise the young.”

While this is not the first time we covered veterinarians using 3D printing to develop prosthetics for animals, the stories don’t get any less heartwarming over time.