Last updated September 18, 2019 at 11:42 am
An international team has been awarded an almost prestigious IgNobel Prize, for working out why wombat poo is cube shaped.
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Every year the crème de la crème of the science world congregate to celebrate great achievements. But this is not a story about Stockholm, black holes or eradication of diseases. The IgNobel Prizes recognise the discoveries that are so trivial they’re unlikely to book a trip to Sweden, but instead “first make people laugh, and then think”.
And this year Australian researchers from Tasmania took home a gong for working out why wombat poo is cubed.
This, I think we can all agree, is the science that matters.
Dropping a brick
Why the furry little dim sims drop a literal brick of cube shaped poo has been a question that has confused tourists and locals for centuries.
“There are many colourful hypotheses to explain the phenomenon, but nobody had ever investigated it. This research has been a fun effort to answer the questions of how and why,” says Scott Carver from the University of Tasmania. The research was done in collaboration with a team from Georgia Tech in the US.
Carver got his hands on some dead wombats to study their intestines. When he first sliced open a wombat cadaver, he was surprised by their extraordinarily long intestines, about 10 metres long. In contrast, human intestines are only 7 metres long.
This explains why wombat poo is so dry compared to human, he says.
“Wombat scat is dry. Human colons are not that long; we don’t pull as much water from faeces.”
The dissections also revealed something else.
“My lab discovered that the cubes formed in the intestine.” This dismissed the idea that the cubes were 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, forms the basis of the current hypothesis about the formation of cubed poo. The idea is that the stretches of intestine that are more stiff are responsible for the sharp edges of the cube.
Wombats are prodigious poopers, producing 80-100 cubes a night. Cubes improve stackability (literal bricks) and prevent the poop from rolling away. It’s used to mark the wombat’s territory and – wait for it – to attract mates.
The world’s best science prizes
Every year 10 pieces of research that might not be celebrated in more traditional ways are awarded an IgNobel Prize. The ceremony at Harvard University is unapologetically weird, with mini-operas, scientific demos, and the 24/7 lectures, where experts must explain their work twice: once in 24 seconds, and the second in just seven words.
Best of all – acceptance speeches are limited to 60 seconds.
One of the most famous local winners is Dr Karl, who took home a gong in 2002 for studying what caused belly button fluff and why it is almost always blue.
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In good news for parents, the Engineering award was handed to an Iranian engineer “for inventing a diaper-changing machine for use on human infants.” (YES FINALLY!!!)
There was also an award given for the tumultuous path research often takes – “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.”