Plucky Hornbill Beats Cancer After Receiving 3D-Printed Beak

Jary recovers after surgery, sporting his new 46-gram casque. Wildlife Reserves Singapore

A 22-year-old great hornbill named Jary is on the mend after veterinarians removed an aggressive cancerous growth from his casque and beak and replaced the diseased tissue with a 3D-printed prosthetic specially designed by local engineers.

This unique medical saga began on July 13, when keepers at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore noticed that their charge had an 8-centimeter (3-inch) wide gash on his casque, the porous keratin structure on top of the beak that puts the "horn" in hornbill. Having lost two birds to this form of cancer in the past, staff vets immediately recognized the probable cause of the decaying tissue. His diagnosis was confirmed after a swift biopsy.

Jary’s casque prior to surgery, showing the cancer-ravaged tissue. Photo credit Wildlife Reserves Singapore. 

Because chemotherapy had been unsuccessful for one of the previous hornbills with the malignancy (the other’s disease was too advanced for any treatment by the time it was detected), the team began formulating a plan that would give the Jary the best chance at survival. They enlisted specialist veterinary surgeons and consultants in addition to experts from the University of Singapore (NUS) Smart Systems Institute, NUS Centre for Additive Manufacturing, and the CUTE (Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiments) Centre – an interactive digital technology research hub run by NUS and Keio University, Japan.

Together, this group spent nearly two months refining a design for his 3D-printed prosthetic.

“This case is a great example of how veterinarians and engineers can work together to utilize science and technology for the treatment of diseases such as cancer in all species, including birds. Together, we achieved the best possible outcome,” said Dr Xie Shangzhe, assistant director of Conservation, Research and Veterinary Services at Wildlife Reserves Singapore – the parent company that manages Jurong Bird Park and other wildlife centers – said in a statement.

The operation to remove all traces of the cancer and replace the excised structures with the prosthetic took place on September 13.

 Dr Hsu Li Chieh, a consultant a Singapore animal hospital, is pictured removing part of the bird's casque with an oscillating saw. Following this ordeal, the hornbill was named Jary (pronounced as ya-ri), which means ‘a warrior with a helmet’ in ancient Norse. Photo credit Wildlife Reserves Singapore. 

“Jary was eating normally the day after the surgery, and recently also started rubbing the prosthetic casque on its preening glands, which secretes yellow pigment. These natural behaviors are good indications that he has accepted the prosthesis as part of him,” Dr Shangzhe added.

Great hornbills (Buceros bicornis), also known as great Indian hornbills and great pied hornbills, are forest-dwellers native to the Indian subcontinent, China, and many areas of Southeast Asia. They are primarily fruit eaters, but will opportunistically snack on insects, reptiles, and small mammals. In captivity, great hornbills can live up to 50 years.

Currently regarded as threatened, per the IUCN Red List, the species is in decline chiefly due to habitat loss from widespread logging, though poaching for bushmeat and the illegal pet trade are also taking a toll.

Dr Xie Shangzhe applies dental resin on Jary’s new casque to seal any gaps after it is screwed in place. The total surgery time was just over one hour. Jary then rested and recuperated in Jurong Bird Park’s Avian outdoor medical ward until the end of October. Photo credit Wildlife Reserves Singapore. 


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