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Flatulent fish net Ig Nobel award

October 1, 2004 By Helen Pilcher This article courtesy of Nature News.

'Alternative' Nobels celebrate the lighter side of science.

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Farting may be a source of schoolboy humour, but it's a matter of life and death for some fish. So say researchers who have just scooped the Biology Ig Nobel award for their discovery that herring may use flatulence as a danger signal.

The Ig Nobel prizes, which are a foil to the Nobel Prizes due to be announced next week, are designed to reward research that makes people laugh, then think. They were presented last night at Harvard University, Massachusetts, in front of a raucous audience.

Winner Robert Batty from the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban and his colleagues, became intrigued by fish farts when they were monitoring captive herring and noticed them breaking wind. "We heard these rasping noises at night," recalls Batty. There were tiny gas bubbles coming from the fish's behinds, he adds.

The fish gulp air from the surface and store it in their swim bladder, before releasing it from a duct in their anus. The noises probably help fish to communicate in the dark, suggests Batty, who reported the results last year in Biology Letters1.

We heard these rasping noises at night. They sounded like high-pitched raspberries.
Robert Batty
Scottish Association for Marine Science, Oban
Fish at the front of a shoal may fart to direct other members in a particular direction, helping to keep the school together and away from predators. The sounds are not made during the day, when the fish use visual information instead.

Country blues

Whisky, women and song were also on the agenda at the Ig Nobel awards. The gong for Medicine went to a study suggesting that country music can foster suicidal thoughts.

Country music often conveys a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, notes James Gundlach from Auburn University, Alabama, who co-authored the research. The song themes commonly revolve around relationship problems that are solved by drink, desertion, and sometimes, death.

Gundlach compared the suicide rates in 49 US cities with the frequency of country music played on local radio stations. Suicide is more common in places where country music is prevalent, he concluded in a 1992 paper in Social Forces2.

Today, Gunlach is concerned about the impact of Brad Paisley's current country hit, Whisky Lullaby. The song is played up to 50 times a week on some US radio stations, and tells of unrequited love, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts. Gundlach is planning a follow up study in five years to assess whether the song has influenced suicide rates.

Despite the downbeat nature of his research, Gundlach was upbeat when he heard of his pending award. "I felt all kind of warm and fuzzy," he said.

Cock-a-hoop

The Ig Nobel award in Physics honoured the childhood art of hula-hooping. Researchers studied seven amateur hula-hoopers in an attempt to understand how the brain manages to keep the tricky toys aloft. They attached sensors to their subjects' joints, and watched as they hula'd at different speeds. Their results were revealed this year in Biological Cybernetics3.

To keep the hoop spinning, the brain potentially has to think about 18 things at once, explains study co-author Michael Turvey from the University of Connecticut in Storrs: the movement of two ankles, two knees and two hip joints in three dimensions.

But the video footage revealed that only two types of movement are really important: the front to back motion of the body controlled by the hips and ankles, and the vertical motion of the body controlled by the knees. Those who have mastered hula-hooping tend to keep these two modes of action perfectly in synch, Turvey explains. "It's quite stunning that children can do this," he adds.

References

  1. Wilson B., Batty R. S. & Dill L. J. Biol. Lett., 271. S95 - S97 (2003).
  2. Stack S. & Gundlach J. Soc. Forces , 71. 211 - 218 (1992).
  3. Balasubramaniam R. & Turvey M. Biol. Cybern., 90. 176 - 190 (2004).

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