Twisted Science of 2009

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 11:32 PM EST

Those of us who love science particularly love its occasional embrace of weirdness. Conservation Maven has been kind enough to herd some of the oddest cats of last year into one pithy column commemorating perplexing moments in conservation science.

In keeping with the twisted spirit of the work, here's my remix of six of their top nine stories from the 2nd half of the year:

  1. The twisted duck penis: Male ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises. Females ducks have vaginas spiraling in the opposite direction. Proof that God doesn't exist? Or evidence that wily hens can physically control which males will actually fertilize their eggs?
  2. Robots evolve: According to some, God did not invent evolution. But Swiss scientists have. In the course of investigating the evolution of animal communication, researchers studied an arena of foraging robots. (First: weird context, right? Second: I did not know that the collective noun for robots was an arena of robots.) The robots emitted blue light and used floor sensors to locate food and avoid poison. Natural selection (tracked via artificial genomes) favored the robots who could suppress their blue light emissions to conceal information from competitors about food location. Wow. Proof that robots evolve into Republicans?
  3. Wrestling bighorns: Canadian scientists are tougher than others. Some decided to go mano-a-horno with bighorn sheep to determine individual personality types and see how that affected reproductive success. Do dominant sheep live longer? Researcher David Coltman described the dominantest sheep of them all: "We were filled with dread when one ram we nicknamed 'Psycho' turned up in a trap. Year in and year out Psycho's reaction was the same. He tried to kill us." Proof of sheep intelligence?
  4. AstroNewts: Austrian scientists describe a bizarre defense mechanism in the Spanish ribbed newt. Faced with predators, these little amphibs twist their body up to 65 degrees, popping their pointy ribs through their skin like retractable piercings, or built-in body armor. Turns out the Spanish ribbed newt has been studied in space on at least six missions. Proof of kinky astronauts?
  5. Fruit bats lick and suck more than mangoes: Short-nosed fruit bats indulge in oral sex. Both genders. Both ways. Whew. And I thought Eve invented that apple stuff.
  6. Bears dig minivans: Black bears know where to dig for the kind of junk food that keeps kids giddily sedated. Or else they know that minivan humans are seriously messy eaters. Either way, bears break into minivans more than any other vehicle in Yosemite National Park. So say wildlife biologists. But twist it a little further and... why not proof that minivan drivers can't read? Or that rugged conformists are deaf (to rangers)? Or they're hibernating at the wheel? Dumber than bears? Proof of a God Bear?
     
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