Beetle's beer bottle sex wins Ig Nobel Prize

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Male buprestid beetles take a fancy to brown "stubbies", but will ignore green wine bottles

I'm sorry, run that one past me again.

That's right, certain Australian beetles will try to copulate with discarded beer bottles, but they have to be of the right type - brown ones with bobbly bits on them.

This fascinating observation made almost 30 years ago has finally landed entomologists Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz with an Ig Nobel Prize.

The Igs are the "alternative" version to the rather more sober Nobel awards announced in Sweden next week.

Other recipients this year of the prizes run by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research included the mayor of Vilnius in Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas.

He was honoured with the Ig Peace Prize for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars could be solved by squashing them with an armoured tank.

The Chemistry Prize went to an inventive Japanese team that worked out how to use wasabi (pungent horseradish) in a fire alarm system. The group even has a patent pending on its idea.

Understanding why discus throwers get dizzy was the topic of the study that won the Physics Prize.

The American awards were handed out on Thursday at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre, in what has become down the years a slightly chaotic but fun event where people throw paper planes and a little girl berates the winners.

Image caption,
The stipples on the bottles may have been confused for markings on females' wing covers

Being given an Ig is nowadays regarded as something to be proud of, which may explain why seven of the 10 winners this year travelled to the ceremony at their own expense. Receiving their Ig from a real Nobel Laureate - six of them were in attendance - probably added to the sense of achievement.

"I'm a great believer in communicating science to non-scientists and I think humour is a good way of doing that; and for that reason I think the Ig Nobels are very positive," Professor Darryl Gwynne told BBC News.

His and David Rentz' study of buprestid beetles began by accident one morning on a field expedition in Western Australia when they found the insects trying to mate with brown "stubbies" left by the side of the road.

"It was just co-incidental that my area of research was Darwinian sexual selection and how sex differences evolve, and here was a classic example taking place in front of my eyes where males were making mating errors.

"It was very obvious the beetles were trying to mate. These beetles have enormous genitalia, and they're large to start with - over two inches long. "The sad thing was that these beetles were dying; they wouldn't leave the bottles alone. They'd fall off them exhausted.

"It was almost certainly the visual colour - the bottle looked like a giant female. And also in the reflectance patterns - there were stipples on the bottles that resembled marks on the females' wing covers."

The full list of Ig Nobel winners:

Physiology Prize: Anna Wilkinson, from the University of Lincoln, and colleagues for their study in the journal Current Zoology titled "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise".

Chemistry Prize: A team led from Shiga University, Japan, that determined the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm. Patent pending.

Medicine Prize: Shared by two teams whose independent research jointly established that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.

Psychology Prize: Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

Literature Prize: John Perry of Stanford University, US, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.

Biology Prize: Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle. The pair have published two papers on the topic.

Physics Prize: Philippe Perrin and colleagues for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't.

Peace Prize: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armoured tank.

Public Safety Prize: John Senders of the University of Toronto, Canada, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.

Mathematics Prize: Shared by a group of doom-mongers for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations -

  • Dorothy Martin of the US who predicted the world would end in 1954
  • Pat Robertson of the US who predicted the world would end in 1982
  • Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the US who predicted the world would end in 1990
  • Lee Jang Rim of Korea who predicted the world would end in 1992
  • Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda who predicted the world would end in 1999
  • Harold Camping of the US who predicted the world would end in 1994 and then later in 2011

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