RoboVulture Becomes First Bird To Receive A Bionic Limb Connected To The Skeleton

We can rebuild them. We have the technology. Image credit: Sarah Hochgeschurz et al., Scientific Reports CC BY 4.0

Prosthetic limbs have come a long way for humans and in recent years animals, too. Just last month we reported on a baby elephant who, having lost its foot to a snare, received a custom-made shoe to replace the limb and return its quality of life. Now, a one-year-old female bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) in Austria named Mia also found herself without a foot, but this bird received a more futuristic limb replacement.

Treated at the Department of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, MedUni in Vienna, Mia received what’s been described as a “Plug and Play” prosthesis, a procedure that has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. A similar limb was created at the institution last year when they developed the world's first fully-integrated bionic arm.

The Plug and Play limb hinges on a new technique known as osseointegration in which the prosthesis is directly connected to a bone giving the replacement limb better stability. This was the approach taken in the case of the human patient Patrick Mayrhofer who severely damaged their hand after touching a live circuit while working as an electrician. Mayrhofer took the decision to have the injured hand removed and replaced by a bionic prosthesis at MedUni Vienna in a world-first for the procedure.

It might seem like a rather invasive approach to take with a wild animal, but for bearded vultures, the use of a foot can mean the difference between life and death. With a wingspan of around 2.6 meters (8.5 feet), they’re the largest flying birds in Europe and as scavengers landing is a pretty important stage of the flight process. Furthermore, their feet are heavily employed in feeding as these birds use them to hold their food, so it was apparent that without help Mia would not survive.

bionic limb vulture
This boot was made for walking, thanks to an implant attached directly to Mia's skeleton. Image credit: Sarah Hochgeschurz et al., Scientific Reports CC BY 4.0

Fortunately, Mia’s operation to attach an implant that could anchor the prosthetic to her own leg bone was a success, and with a little rest and rehabilitation, she was soon back quite literally on her feet.

"The bird made the first attempts to walk after just three weeks and the prosthesis was under full load after six weeks,” said reconstructive surgeon at MedUni Dr Oskar Aszmann in a statement, who was at the helm of Mayrhofer’s bionic hand replacement. “Today the bearded vulture can once again land and walk using both feet, making it the first 'bionic bird'

"This concept offers a high degree of embodiment, since osseoperception provides direct intuitive feedback, thereby allowing natural use of the extremity for walking and feeding. For the first time, we have now successfully bionically reconstructed the limb of a vulture." 


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