Aussies win Ig Nobel with stargazing beetles

By Natsumi Penberthy | September 12, 2013

Beetles win Aussies an Ig Nobel Prize for studies that “first make you laugh and then make you think”.

A TEAM OF five scientists — two Australians, a Swede, and a South African — have won an Ig Nobel Prize for a study on stargazing dung beetles.

The researchers discovered that dung beetles use the Milky Way as a guide when navigating their way home while rolling a piece of dung.

Before this experiment, it was long assumed that they used the moon as a cue on where to roll their dung booty, as they move in a remarkably straight line away from a pile of poo.  

The Igs, which are held at Harvard each year, celebrate science’s awards for studies that “first make you laugh and then make you think”. Aussies have been well represented over the years, making up roughly 5% of the winning entries. 

Australians win big in quirky Ig Nobel award

In fact it was Australia’s second Ig Nobel on the study of discerning insects. In 2011, Australian researchers Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz were awarded an Ig Nobel for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.  

This year’s winners were not at all worried about their study’s perceived normality.

“We are proud to have been awarded this prize, because it means that we have managed to make people (and not only other researchers) both laugh and think … it very much mirrors the way we design and carry out experiments – which involves a lot of laughter,” says Emily Baird an assistant professor of functional zoology at Lund University in Sweden.

Ig Nobel a nod to unusual research

One of the five scientists involve in the project, Emily became interested in insects while researching visual cues at the Centre for Visual Science. The centre, part of the Australian National University in Canberra, is where she met two of the other researchers involved in the study.

“We set out,” says Emily, “to test how full the moon had to be before dung beetles could no longer use it as a compass cue for holding a straight line. What we discovered – to our great surprise – was that the dung beetles were in fact still able to roll in straight lines even when the moon was absent”.  

The researchers then took their dung beetles to the planetarium in Johannesburg, South Africa, and presented the beetles with different combinations of stars, including the Milky Way, and discovered that the beetles could roll straight only when the Milky Way was present.

Despite the giggles, the very real result is that this makes dung beetles the first animal known to use the Milky Way as a compass and the first insect to use the stars to orientate.

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