Wombat poo research wins 2019 Ig Nobel Prize

Tuesday, 17 September, 2019

Wombat poo research wins 2019 Ig Nobel Prize

Scientists from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) are among an international research team that recently set out to crack the secret of the unique cubed poo of wombats — and received an Ig Nobel Prize for their efforts.

Presented every year by Improbable Research, the satirical Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for research that makes people laugh and then think. In the case of the UTAS researchers, they won the 2019 Ig Nobel Physics Prize for investigating a subject that has baffled both bushwalkers and biological scientists for a long time.

“There are many colourful hypotheses to explain the phenomenon, but nobody had ever investigated it,” said UTAS researcher Dr Scott Carver. “This research has been a fun effort to answer the questions of how and why.”

When Dr Carver first sliced open a wombat cadaver, he was surprised by their extraordinarily long intestines — about 10 m long. In contrast, human intestines are only 7 m long.

It is partially because of these long colons that wombat scat is dry, Dr Carver explained. “Human colons are not that long; we don’t pull as much water from faeces.”

The dissections also revealed that the cubes formed in the intestine, dismissing the idea that the cubes are formed at the point of exit from the wombat. The fact that the wombat intestine is not uniformly flexible, with some parts rigid while other parts are soft, further forms the basis of the current hypothesis about the formation of cubed poo.

Dr Carver’s research was one of 10 to receive an Ig Nobel Prize in 2019, whittled down from approximately 9000 nominations. Other 2019 award winners are as follows:

  • Medicine Prize: Silvano Gallus, for collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy.
  • Medical Education Prize: Karen Pryor and Theresa McKeon, for using a simple animal-training technique — called ‘clicker training’ — to train surgeons to perform orthopaedic surgery.
  • Biology Prize: Ling-Jun Kong, Herbert Crepaz, Agnieszka Górecka, Aleksandra Urbanek, Rainer Dumke and Tomasz Paterek, for discovering that dead magnetised cockroaches behave differently than living magnetised cockroaches.
  • Anatomy Prize: Roger Mieusset and Bourras Bengoudifa, for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France.
  • Chemistry Prize: Shigeru Watanabe, Mineko Ohnishi, Kaori Imai, Eiji Kawano and Seiji Igarashi, for estimating the total saliva volume produced per day by a typical five-year-old child.
  • Engineering Prize: Iman Farahbakhsh, for inventing a nappy-changing machine for use on human infants.
  • Economics Prize: Habip Gedik, Timothy A Voss and Andreas Voss, for testing which country’s paper money is best at transmitting dangerous bacteria.
  • Peace Prize: Ghada A bin Saif, Alexandru Papoiu, Liliana Banari, Francis McGlone, Shawn G Kwatra, Yiong-Huak Chan and Gil Yosipovitch, for trying to measure the pleasurability of scratching an itch.
  • Psychology Prize: Fritz Strack, for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and for then discovering that it does not.

Image credit: University of Tasmania.

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