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Sword Swallowers, Belly Buttons and Flatulent Fish: the Ig Nobel prizes

9 Dec

In a world where high-speed neutrinos and melting ice caps hog the limelight, it’s sometimes nice to pay tribute to the sillier side of science. Because for every Einstein there’s a physicist trying to understand why toast always lands butter-side down; for every Darwin, a biologist who studies fish farts.

Once a year, scientists come together to honour the unsung heroes of science, awarding ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes to achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. A parody of the Nobel Prizes, these awards celebrate science that is eccentric, bizarre, or just downright ridiculous ­– studies “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobel awards – making people laugh, and then making them think (credit: Improbable Research)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the Ig Nobels for a while. So, here it is at last – a rundown of my all-time favourite prizewinners. Happy holidays! Continue reading


On Men and How They Should Dance

14 Sep

It’s a common scenario. You’re at a wedding reception, the speeches are over, and a DJ starts doing his thing in the corner of the room, obscured behind a wall of tacky disco lights.

Before long, the complimentary champagne begins to work its magic on the revellers. A mildly inebriated Auntie Valerie is the first to wander onto the dancefloor, deciding that a slightly dented reputation is a small price to pay for having a good time. Uncle Bob is next to follow, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves as soon as he hears the opening strains of “Y.M.C.A.”.

Meanwhile, the best man – let’s call him Dave – has his eye on one of the bridesmaids, Emily. Hugging his warm pint of Carlsberg, Dave watches Emily as she glides across the dancefloor like a swan on roller skates. Feeling ever more tipsy, he puts down his beer and shuffles towards her.

Suddenly, “Y.M.C.A.” gives way to the drum/bass intro of “Billie Jean”. Dave spots his chance. Moving deftly through the throng of exhausted dancers, he positions himself opposite Emily and begins to engage in a mating ritual worthy of any bird of paradise. Completely oblivious to the onlooking crowd, Dave bends his torso from side to side like a man possessed, simultaneously shaking his head to the beat whilst performing an elaborate twisting routine with his right knee.

Dave's dance moves delighted and shocked in equal measure (credit: dpphotography)

The ritual seems to have worked: 30 minutes later both he and Emily are locked in a romantic embrace, gently swaying to “Lady in Red” amidst a sea of teary-eyed couples.

Dave’s secret? He’s familiar with a recent article in Biology Letters which shows that certain dance moves are more likely to ignite the passions of a woman.

Nick Neave and colleagues at Northumbria University used motion-capture technology to record the movements of 19 men dancing to a basic drum beat. Each dancer was then mapped onto a computer-generated avatar, and 37 heterosexual women were asked to rate the avatars on their dancing prowess.

Examples of the motion-capture avatars, showing (a) a static pose and (b) a dance move (credit: N. Neave et al.)

By correlating the women’s ratings with the avatars’ movements, the scientists were able to come up with a recipe for successful boogieing. The three factors that most contributed to high dance scores were ‘neck internal/external rotation variability’ (head shaking), ‘trunk adduction/abduction variability’ (sideways bending) and ‘right knee internal/external rotation speed’ (twisting speed).

These movements, claims the study, may provide signals of a man’s suitability as a sexual partner by indicating his physical strength, health or genetic quality.

According to Neave et al., dance in humans “…is a set of intentional, rhythmic, culturally influenced, non-verbal body movements that are considered to be an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction”.

This links us to, amongst other animals, Pronghorn mammals, hummingbirds, and fiddler crabs, all of whom perform courtship displays in order to entice prospective partners.

So, guys, if you want to woo on the dancefloor, try dancing like this instead of like this!

Further reading: Neave N, McCarty K, Freynik J, Caplan N, Hönekopp J, & Fink B (2011). Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. Biology letters, 7 (2), 221-4 PMID: 20826469

Street Science

26 Aug

I love a good bit of street art, so when I saw that Symbiartic had posted a load of science-themed graffiti on their blog, I got pretty excited. Here are some of my favourites from their post, along with a couple extras…

A Banksy masterpiece in Leake Street, London (credit: Street Art Utopia)

'Interplay Anatomy' in Milan, Italy (credit: Ale Senso)

Darwin goes all lovey-dovey (credit: AK Photoman)

True dat (credit:

A pig skeleton in Ghent, Belgium (credit: sssour)

And one that’s got nothing to do with science but deserves to be posted anyway, if only for its sheer awesomeness…

Sucking amazing! (credit: Street Art Utopia)

Cornelia and her Mutant Bugs

29 Jul

Reading through a recent BBC article about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I suddenly remembered a blog post that I’d started a couple months ago but never got around to finishing.

I’ll get back to that post in a minute. But first, a quick summary of the BBC article, which follows a team of biologists working in the 30 km exclusion zone that surrounds the abandoned nuclear planet. Their mission: to find out how the local wildlife is coping 25 years after the accident.

An abandoned elephant slide inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Credit: David McMillan

These scientists conclude that the nuclear fallout has had a negative impact on the local ecosystem. “In the highly contaminated areas, we see fewer than half as many species as there are in the cleaner parts of the zone,” says Tim Mousseau, the team leader.

But that’s just one side of the picture. After the explosion, the radioactive dust settled in a haphazard manner, leading to some areas being much more contaminated than others. This patchy dust coverage could explain why many biologists believe that the region is actually teeming with wildlife.

For example, a healthy ecosystem has been discovered in the most contaminated lake in the exclusion zone, Glubokoye. It’s thought that the disappearance of humans from the area has allowed this aquatic community to thrive.

“Whether radiation is damaging wildlife in Chernobyl is still an open question,” says radioecologist Jim Smith. “Now the people have moved out, it’s clear that everyday human occupation and activity did much more damage than the contamination left by the accident.”

This debate took me back to my abandoned blog post about an artist called Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. Cornelia’s speciality is drawing bugs. She spent most of her career as a scientific illustrator, meticulously drawing insect specimens at Zürich’s Natural History Museum. The Chernobyl catastrophe, however, sent her career in a new direction.

Two of Cornelia's illustrations...a harlequin bug and a ladybird beetle

Soon after the nuclear accident, worried by news reports about the scale of the disaster, Cornelia decided to find out how the insect world had been affected. Armed with a map of the European fallout distribution, she headed to an area of southern Sweden where high radioactivity had been recorded and, once there, began to draw the bugs that she spotted.

What she discovered shocked her. Cornelia identified a large number of insects with misshapen or malformed body parts – mutations which would barely be visible to the untrained eye. Ever since, Cornelia has devoted her spare time to studying the insects that live around nuclear power plants, at sites including Sellafield in the UK and Three Mile Island in the USA.

A scorpionfly with a twisted right wing and deformed abdomen, found near the Leibstadt nuclear plant in Switzerland, 1988

Intrigued by her paintings, I got in touch with Cornelia to ask how the scientific community had reacted to her work. “They thought my findings were ridiculous,” she said. “They were sure, as they still are, that the radiation is not dangerous. The Swiss scientists were very aggressive.” Indeed, being snubbed by scientists is a running theme in Cornelia’s biography.

Clearly, the scientific consensus is that such low-level radiation is too weak to have any visible effect on these insects. Yet Cornelia remains convinced that vulnerable bugs are susceptible to even small amounts of radiation.

A tree bug found near the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington, USA. The right feeler lacks a section

Granted, these paintings may lack scientific rigour, but they certainly provide compelling evidence of disturbed insect life near nuclear plants. Only time will tell which side wins this debate: as the BBC article revealed, there’s still a lot to understand about the ecological impacts of nuclear radiation.

Extinction Poems

2 May

The Feral Theatre blog recently published a selection of poems on the topic of extinction, written by students at the South Camden Community School. Here’s a couple of my favourites, about the Steller’s sea cow and the thylacine (animals I hadn’t even heard of before, let alone know that they were extinct!).

Steller’s Sea Cow Speaks

Illustration of Steller's sea cows by F. John, 1902

Nature made me
But I feel as if I’ve lost protection

Nature made me
Yet I feel as if nature itself
doesn’t know who I am

Nature made me
But I’m under constant threat
from those superior to me

Nature made me
Somehow I had this natural feeling
that you too would care enough for me

Nature made me
So I thought you would love me
as your fellow companion

Nature made me
And for my fate there was zero creation
because now it ends.

By Fama, Y10

Eulogy to the Great Thylacine

Thylacine digital collage, by The Contextual Villains

O the great Thylacine
Your stripes are outstanding and worth looking at
Those mighty jaws of yours are very
So much that no-one would dare to look away.

You are your own animal
Nothing can match your unique looks.
You are the mighty king of all animals!
You will always be remembered.

The last Thylacine was killed by a human.
Please don’t take revenge on humans.

By Mahid Sulley and Yasmin Ahmed

Read all of the extinction-themed poems here, with, refreshingly, not a dodo in sight!

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