Mixed-up males woo wrong birds

October 4, 2002

For the British farming industry, the discovery that male ostriches appeared to prefer female humans to their own species spelt bad news. Breeding rates were almost unsustainable and now it seems that the cause lay inside the screwed-up heads of the birds themselves.

For the scientists who made the finding, their results have also proved a mixed blessing - they have carried off the Ig Nobel prize for biology.

The 2002 Ig Nobel prizes were presented last night for achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced" at a ceremony at Harvard University organised by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research .

Among those honoured was Charles Paxton, a scientist at the research unit for wildlife population analysis at the University of St Andrews and one of four authors of the report, Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches towards Humans under Farming Conditions in Britain , published in the journal British Poultry Science in 1998.

Co-author Norma Bubier, executive director of Pro-Natura UK, said the research had revealed that male ostriches tended to ignore their opposite numbers and instead presented their courtship displays to female humans.

Dr Bubier suspected this was because British farm conditions meant that ostrich eggs were hatched in incubators and so new hatchlings were imprinting on the female human technicians they saw in their first few days rather than their own species, as they would on farms in warmer climes.

Another British winner was Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, who scooped medicine for his well-balanced report Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture .

Professor McManus, whose work on the genetics of handedness is well respected, published research in the journal Nature in 1976 showing that ancient sculptors failed to reproduce the typical mismatch between the size and height of human testicles as reality clashed with their understanding of physiology.

Other prizes went to Vicki Silvers and David Kreiner at the universities of Nevada-Reno and Missouri State, US, for their report The Effects of Pre-existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension (Literature) ; Karl Kruszelnicki at the University of Sydney, Australia, for his survey of belly button fluff; Arnd Leike at the University of Munich, Germany, for demonstrating that beer froth obeys the mathematical law of exponential decay; and K. P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan at Kerala Agricultural University, India, for their report Estimation of the Total Surface Area in Indian Elephants .

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