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Building A Beak: A Sunbittern's Second Chance

After a sunbittern fractured and lost one third of her upper beak, Philly Zoo partnered with a local dentist on a unique project: creating a prosthetic beak using dental materials.

The purpose of a bird’s beak is multi-fold; its primary job is to capture, secure and eat food. It makes probing for, and eating, insects easy. It cracks seeds, is used for drinking and basically functions like hands for a human. The beak enables a bird to gather materials to build a nest, to feed its young, and to preen. It is also used as a weapon; its hard surface can serve as an effective protectant. So, when our sunbittern, a small elegant bird native to Guatemala and Brazil, fractured and lost one-third of her upper beak, repairing the beak was critical, but was it possible?

A beak injury is serious, but there are options for healing. Beak regrowth is possible, but it takes a very long time. “Given the length of beak lost, growth to a length at which this bird is likely to be able to eat well, without a prothesis, could take a year or longer. In order for her to continue to eat and function normally we had to construct a temporary beak tip while her beak (hopefully!) regrew,” said Dr. Donna Ialeggio, Philly Zoo’s Director of Animal Health.

The team tried a number of options, using a variety of materials, even acrylic fingernails with hardening ingredients, to fashion into a beak. They were effective but needed to be replaced frequently, so the team continued its search for the best solution.

While on a visit to her dentist, the Zoo’s Veterinary Technician Jenna Heinze began talking about the bird, sharing the different attempts the team made to create a working beak. Dr. Vipul Saini, DDS at Schwenksville Dental Care, was immediately interested in helping with the case. “While Jenna was here, we called Dr. Ialeggio at the Zoo and she provided accurate measurements, enabling me to design the beak,” said Dr. Saini. “I started by stacking several acrylic tooth shells together, held by an acrylic powder and liquid mix. Once designed I was able to polish and smooth the beak using dental polishing burs and wheels.”

The process took about an hour, and Jenna left with a new beak, some dental material to help with bonding, and waited for the other beak to falloff. Once that occurred, the team went to work, fitting the beak, making modifications, tailoring it to the animal and replacing it. “Dr. Saini’s design was great, and the dental acrylic he provided made a huge difference in the frequency of beak replacement,” said Dr. Ialeggio.

The new beak is working well and has remained in place for more than six weeks, the longest run for any prosthetic tried before it. Today, the bird is eating well and living a pretty normal life. At its last exam, the team confirmed there was some growth on her beak under the prosthesis which is great news! “I am so happy to be part of this project, and I am thrilled that I could help with rehabilitating this beautiful animal,” said Dr. Saini.

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