Heinrich Mallison sent me this amazing photo, which he found unattributed on Facebook:

Infuriatingly, I’ve not been able to track down an original source for this: searching for the text just finds a bunch of reposts on meme sites, and Google’s reverse image search just reports a bunch of hits on Reddit:

The line-drawing shows some scientific understanding of bird skeletons, so I imagine someone put real thought into this and is unhappy that the image is propagating uncredited. If that person reads this, please leave a comment: I’d love to credit it properly.

Anyway … what’s going on here?

Birds (like all vertebrates) have two tubes running down the ventral aspect of the neck (i.e. below the vertebrae): the trachea, for breathing, and the oesophagus, for swallowing. But these both open into the back of the mouth and are not piped up past it. I’ve not dissected enough bird heads to show this clearly, but when I was taking Veronica apart the trachea was pretty visibly ending in the mouth cavity, not plumbed up past the mouth into the nasal space:

So yes, I think it’s true: shoebills can bulge their spines out of their mouths.

Why? My best guess that there’s just nowhere else for the spine to go when the neck is retracted. There’s a big empty space in the mouth, why let it go to waste?