For Karl the hornbill, the pickings were slim. With only half a bottom beak, the black-plumed bird at Washington's National Zoo couldn't eat anything smaller than a mouse. And to do that, he had to sort of scrape his beak along the ground while tilting his head at just the right angle. Lacking teeth, Abyssinian ground hornbills scoop up morsels, which they flip in the air and swallow whole. Experts puzzled over how to help the 27-year-old bird eat, the Washington Post reports, but ill-fitting prosthetics kept falling off. Experts at the Smithsonian Institution then came up with a novel idea: Reaching into their vaults, they found a hornbill skull circa 1933 to use as a model, then turned to a 3D printer to build Karl a shiny new beak.
In a fascinating video that outlines the process, specialists crafted the new appendage in stages with the help of the printer. Then they glued it onto a prone Karl. "Fingers crossed it stays on," one of them says. Native to Africa, hornbills are about the size of a wild turkey. Males have blue and red coloring around their throats and long eyelashes they can flutter at mates they choose exclusively. For Karl's sake, his keepers hope with a full belly, he will be better able to keep up the latter end of the bargain. Vet James Steeil says the hope is that the high-tech prosthetic "will provide Karl with a better avenue to eat for himself and hopefully propagate the species." (Animals are being stolen from this zoo—for food.)