injured toucan

Veterinarian Carmen Soto treats Grecia, a male toucan maimed by teenagers in Costa Rica. (Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)

Toucans can't do much without their beaks, which help the iconic birds forage, eat, regulate body temperature and attract mates. So when a group of teenagers in Costa Rica recently attacked a young male yellow-throated toucan, leaving him with a badly broken upper beak, the outlook wasn't good.

Named "Grecia" after the town where he lives, the toucan is a partially tame mascot of the community and often receives food from locals. That likely made him more vulnerable, rescuers say, and might explain why he didn't initially fly away when the children began hitting him with a stick.

While human cruelty cost Grecia his bill, however, human compassion and creativity may soon replace it. An Indiegogo campaign has raised more than $9,500 to fund a prosthetic beak for Grecia, and several Costa Rican companies have volunteered to create a new beak with 3-D printing.

3-D printing may be relatively new, but it has quickly found a wide range of uses by letting people make customized items with cheap materials almost anywhere. That includes medical and veterinary uses, from prosthetic dog limbs and shells for hermit crabs to replica hearts that help surgeons operate on human infants. A few birds have even received 3-D printed beaks, including a bald eagle who was shot in the face by a hunter and a penguin who damaged his beak at the Warsaw Zoo.

Still, replacing a toucan's beak is no easy task. While they look formidable, the beaks are actually lightweight and made of "bone struts" filled with spongy keratin. They play an important role in thermoregulation as well as mate selection, but toucans also use them to pick fruit from fragile branches and to grab insects from tree cavities. Any replacement will need to mimic this natural mix of lightness and durability, even though Grecia will probably need to live out his life in captivity.

injured toucan

Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

Carmen Soto, a veterinarian at Zoo Ave rescue center, has said Grecia is slowly recovering and even eating a little food on his own, but his wounds will need to heal more before anyone can scan his beak to start building a model. Zoo Ave director Guisella Arroyo recently told Costa Rica's La Nacion newspaper the bird's wounds might be healed enough sometime in March.

Meanwhile, designers are studying toucan beaks to devise a specific model for Grecia. "We couldn't use any type of adhesive with chemical components as it could compromise the structure of the beak," designer Nelson Martinez tells the BBC. Screws might be needed to attach the beak, he adds, with "a fixed part and a moveable part so it can be cleaned or replaced as the toucan is still growing."

The video below offers a preview of what Grecia's new bill might look like:

The Indiegogo campaign has already nearly doubled its original goal of $5,000, but its website explains that additional funds will go toward other animal-rescue projects at Zoo Ave, which receives roughly 2,800 orphaned, injured or confiscated wild animals every year.

"We are in close contact with the parties in Costa Rica and the U.S. to make the prosthesis a reality now," the organizers write. "All further funds raised will go directly to Zoo Ave Rescue Center in Alajuela, Costa Rica, to support them in the preservation of the beautiful wild birds and toucans there."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.