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Crane Adaptations: The Neck

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A whooping crane's neck must be very long so the crane can reach down and pull up blue crabs from the bottom of marshes without getting its body feathers soaked.

  • Every bird's and mammal's neck is a tube filled with other tubes that carry important messages and substances from the head to the body and the body to the head. The trachea carries the air we breathe from our mouth and nostrils down to our lungs, and sends carbon dioxide back up from the lungs to the mouth for exhaling. If you touch the front of your own neck, you can feel your trachea through the skin; it has rings of cartilage that keep it open so the moist air passing through won't make it collapse like a flattened balloon. The trachea is also where most human and animal sounds are produced. A whooping crane's trachea is straight along the length of the neck, but coils dramatically as it reaches the body cavity, inside the sternum. Although we can't see this on the outside, its huge trachea allows the crane to produce especially loud, resonating sounds in the way that a tuba can produce louder, more resonant sounds than those of a tiny trumpet. A whooping crane's voice can carry over 5 miles -- thanks to its long, coiled trachea. Hear the unison call, the guard call, and the soft brood call to babies.

  • The esophagus is softer and stretchier than the trachea. It carries food from the mouth to the stomach, and can stretch enough for the crane to swallow large blue crabs.

  • The head and body are supported by the vertebrae -- a set of special bones that each have a hole in the middle, like stacked donuts. The spinal cord runs through these holes, with nerves that carry messages from the brain to the rest of the body. (You can feel some of your own vertebrae by running a finger along the back of your neck.)

  • Under the neck feathers are a very thin layer of skin and a thicker layer of muscle that moves the neck around. A crane's neck can reach down to the ground and water to feed, stretch up as high as the crane can reach for bugling and dancing, and turn all around to look about and to preen the body's back and underside. The skin and muscles have to be stretchy, too. A crane's neck needs to be as skinny as possible so that the crane can easily maneuver it all directions for feeding, preening, dancing, calling, and watching out for predators.

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