No, Pelicans Don't Shove Their Spines Through Their Mouths To Cool Down

This pelican might look like it's flipped inside out, but the behavior is perfectly normal. MookMook Photogaphy/Shutterstock

There’s nothing that excites me more than discovering a new freaky animal fact and so you can imagine my excitement when a conversation struck up on Twitter about pelicans cooling down by forcing their spines through their mouths. “Surely not?!” I thought to myself, “that’s completely ludicrous!” I said. Well, as it turns out, it was.

The viral Tweet, which showed some less-than-flattering shots of a “pelican” pushing its spine out in this way, was in fact just a bird yawning, with the accompanying photo and diagram actually showing a shoebill doing the same thing. Yawn, indeed.

The debate began when a Twitter user posted these haunted photographs and diagrams, sparking a spirited debate about what on Earth Mother Nature was thinking:


But, just as Twitter giveth, it taketh away…


Dr Dani Rabaiotti is a science communicator and author working with the Zoological Society of London and, as she points out, these cursed images do not show either the pelican or the shoebill shunting their spine through their mouth. What these images are actually showing are some, still very freaky, yawns that force the birds’ lower, soft-tissue beak over their neck, giving the appearance of a spine due to the flesh color of the inner beak. Sometimes pelicans will also stretch their heads up and seemingly push their skulls through the same part of the beak. It’s honestly quite difficult to watch, never mind explain, so I’ll leave you to enjoy this video that reveals all.

Pelicans need their long stretchy beaks for feeding as they use their pouch-like lower beak to scoop up water and catch fish as they swim by. The yawn is thought to act as a stretch for the beak, which given its so large explains the weird, contortionist-like movement. Whatever the bird is doing, I think we can all agree on this.


As for the shoebill, we don’t need to get into why these birds yawn to establish that they’re freaky. If their judgmental death stare and ominous feet aren’t enough to convince you that these birds would make excellent movie villains, try listening to the sound they make…

Yup, Mother Nature sure does move in mysterious ways.



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