Now, decapitation is often a human related phenomenon as most animals living normal lives in the wild rarely ever get beheaded, outside of maybe insects due to their eating habits. It is likely that humans are the animals that suffer most from decapitation; anything from suicides, to murders, to car accidents. It is also true that humans are the cause of a lot of animal (often domesticated animals) decapitation so some human elements in this post will be rather unavoidable.
Decapitation (derived from the Latin word caput meaning 'head') or beheading by definition is the removal of a living organism’s head, but it can also be applied to cases where the head is severed from the spine but the head stays on, there is also the removal of the head from a dead organism’s body, or sometimes even a nonliving object’s body (a la statues). No matter the context it is defined in, it is still the act of removing the head from something. In this case though, we are focusing on the first definition, unless I have to expand on what happens when someone removes a head fro ma dead body, but I’m not going there because I’m lazy.
When decapitation does happen, the body’s responses to such an event often varies from animal to animal. Sometimes, you get little to no reaction at all, mostly due to immediate system shock and extreme drops in blood pressure causing the organism to loose consciousness almost instantly. Other times, you get epileptic spasms of epic proportions or simply utterly bizarre events wherein the beheading is not actually fatal. In this case, we will be looking at the latter events and why they happened.
Now let’s start off with the chicken as they seem to be in the most obvious and the one of the more popular animals in decapitation cases. One that particularly stands out, and one that some of you wtf_nature people may already know, is Mike the Headless Chicken.
He has a website: http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org/ . It’s pretty damn trippy and it even lists the date of the festival dedicated to his existence.
He also has a monument dedicated to him:
Now Mike was actually the victim of a rather botched decapitation, as the person who beheaded him missed some of his brain stem, an ear and his jugular vein. With some of his brain stem intact, he was still able to amble around nearly as well as any normal chicken could, and the fact that his jugular vein was missed meant that the poor fellow didn’t bleed to death. While his feeding habit needed some changing he still apparently lived for eighteen months after his decapitation under the care of the Olsen family, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s missing most of his head. Whether or not this is a good thing, I leave to the interpretation of you readers.
In more common cases of poultry decapitation however, the headless chicken are running about with no actual pieces of their brain stem left over. These chicken will not live as long as Mike due to their severed jugular, but they do have enough in them to run around for a minute or so, give or take. This is because the nerves that control the chicken’s running reflexes are built differently from humans and they also aren’t connected to the chicken’s brain the same way a human’s running reflex is. Running for a chicken is like the kind of reflex we have after touching something hot: the signal doesn’t have to reach the brain first for the body to be able to react. Hence, headless chicken.
Speaking of differences in neural connections though, the reptiles are a particularly good example of how utterly bizarre the effects of decapitation can be as their neural system are exceedingly different from mammals and birds. Now for reptiles, decapitation is not actually a very quick death. Cold blooded reptiles, particularly the amphibious sort such as crocodiles, have brains are more efficiently wired for dealing with oxygen deprivation than both a mammals and birds which means they can be conscious for an hour after being severed from the body. The head can bite, scent the air, follow movements with their eyes and even move around somewhat if enough of their neck is still attached. The body can move for an equally long time on its own.
While cases of decapitated reptiles are significantly less popular than headless chickens, there is one article that seems to be relatively well known: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/08/10/america/NA-ODD-US-Beheaded-Rattlesnake.php
A rattle snake bit a man after he beheaded it, sending the man into ER. I could just imagine the head doing a semi-flip and clamping down on the guy’s hand. Pretty wicked. Being the snake lover that I am though, I still can’t help but feel sorry for the snake.
Moving on, I now present to you: insect decapitation. Now insects are very, very different from all the other species that I have written about thus far. For one, they have an open respiratory system and they breathe through spiracles which are basically tiny holes in each segment of their bodies that allows them to draw in air. This also means that their cardiovascular systems are vastly different from all the other animals, not as complicated either so they don’t need a sufficient amount of pressure to get oxygen moving about through an intricate system of capillaries. The spiracles just let the air directly into the tissue rather than having it carried by blood.
Insects are also cold blooded which means that their metabolism is very slow which is why they don’t need to eat for a very long period of time and they don’t really need their brains to control much other than the sensory inputs from the sensors on their heads. The body can just go on living without need to consume sustenance for days on end. One of the most obvious examples of famous insect decapitation is the cockroach. As many people know, cockroaches are very hard to kill short of crushing them completely. The cockroach can live well over a week without its head before it does starves to death.
Beware the humble cockroaches.
Now the last case is a purely human case but it’s one that is too interesting for me to pass up. Seeing as humans are mammals anyways however, this could also be the mammal decapitation bit. This particular event is known as lucid decapitation where the beheaded human head is capable of still being conscious and aware after decapitation. Originally, the symptoms of lucid decapitation was originally attributed to the aforementioned reflexive reactions of the peripheral nervous system but after an experiment done by Doctor Beaurieux on a prisoner named Languille where the Doctor called the Prisoner’s name several times after Languille was beheaded, well. Let’s just say that there was a reason why beheading people was soon suspected to be inhuman. In later experiments done by a French chemist named Antoine Lavoisier where there have been recordings of the severed head blinking up to thirty seconds after death.
There is actually no real explanation for lucid decapitation that I’ve come across outside of the reflexive nervous actions. Mostly because there have been no modern decapitations done under controlled conditions that would allow scientists to observe and record what the human head does after being decapitated.
Mike the Headless Chicken