Friday Funny – bug sex and beer

From the University of Toronto, where they didn’t blame the CO2 in the beer for this, thank goodness.

University of Toronto Mississauga professor wins Ig Nobel Prize for beer, sex research

A male Australian jewel beetle attempts to mate with a "stubby" beer bottle. Credit: Darryl Gwynne

It was a case of a besotted male and beer. Love-sick and lonely, the male girded his loins and took immediate action to relieve his unhappiness – but with a surprising outcome, as a U of T Mississauga professor discovered.

The male in question, an Australian jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli), became so enamored with a brown “stubby” beer bottle that he tried to mate with it – so vigorously that he died trying to copulate in the hot sun rather than leave willingly, says Professor Darryl Gwynne of biology, an international expert in behavioural ecology, specifically the evolution of reproductive behaviour.

Today, Gwynne and his Australian colleague David Rentz were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University for their 1983 paper “Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females.” The Ig Nobel Prizes, a parody of the Nobel Prizes, are awarded annually by the scientific humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research to “first make people laugh and then make them think.” The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.

“I’m honoured, I think,” Gwynne says, with a smile on his face. “The awards make people think, and they’re a bit of a laugh. Really, we’ve been sitting here by the phone for the past 20 plus years waiting for the call. Why did it take them so long?”

Gwynne and Rentz were conducting field work in Western Australia 23 years ago when they noticed something unusual along the side of the road. “We were walking along a dirt road with the usual scattering of beer cans and bottles when we saw about six bottles with beetles on top or crawling up the side. It was clear the beetles were trying to mate with the bottles.”

The bottles – stubbies as they are known in Australia – resemble a “super female” jewel beetle, Gwynne says: big and orangey brown in colour, with a slightly dimpled surface near the bottom (designed to prevent the bottle from slipping out of one’s grasp) that reflects light in much the same way as female wing covers. The bottles proved irresistible to males. Ignoring the females, the males mounted or tried to climb up the bottles, refusing to leave. They fried to death in the sun, were eaten by hungry ants or had to be physically removed by the researchers.

Gwynne and Rentz determined that the males were attracted only to stubbies – not to beer cans or wine bottles of a slightly different shade of brown. And it wasn’t the bottles’ contents that captured their attention: “Not only do western Australians never dispose of a beer bottle with beer still in it, but many of the bottles had sand and detritus accumulated over many months,” the research paper notes.

Beer and sex humour aside, the research has serious messages, Gwynne says. First, when humans interfere – perhaps unwittingly – in an evolutionary process, there can be unintended consequences; in this case, female beetles are ignored by males which can have a huge impact on the natural world. “Improperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and ‘visual’ hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species,” the paper says. To that end, Gwynne forwarded research results to a leading western Australian brewer.

And secondly, Gwynne points out that the research supports the theory of sexual selection: that males, in their eagerness to mate, are the ones that make mating mistakes.

Gwynne conducted his research as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Western Australia in Nedlands. He joined U of T Mississauga in 1987. The research was published in the journal of the Entomological Society of Australia and the U.K.-based journal, Antenna.

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61 thoughts on “Friday Funny – bug sex and beer

  1. There are some nominees missing in the Mathematics award. Paul Ehrlich, Tim Flannery, Prince Charles, and many more, predicted or are predicting that the world is ending…
    Ecotretas

  2. I’m an Aussie, and I can (almost) honestly say that I know males of the human species in our Wide Brown Land who are also more attracted to a stubby than to the females of their species! Perhaps male beetles are copy cats?

  3. That’ll be an Aussie (beetle) for ya … our Aussie prime minister is currently doing it to the populace; hopefully she’ll be gone rather sooner than later (unlike the beetle) :)

  4. Anthony,
    There was an even funnier report in the Australian on the other Australian Ig-Nogbel winner:

    ‘While Australian laureate David Rentz was physically handed the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (“for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle”) by seven genuine Nobel laureates at Boston’s Harvard University, fellow Australian winner Paul Maruff toasted his victory at a resort in far north Queensland.

    “I was bemused when I heard the news, but it has cachet, ” said Dr Maruff, a psychologist with CogState, a Melbourne firm specialising in designing clinical trials of drugs aimed at improving intellectual impairment.

    Hence, his award-winning collaboration on the effects of a full bladder on decision-making.

    According to his team’s findings, having a really full bladder impairs decision-making.

    “(We found) the degree you can’t concentrate is much bigger than (having a blood alcohol level) of 0.05. It’s worse than if you haven’t slept in 24 hours,” Dr Maruff said, adding that he and his US colleagues had conducted the trial on themselves.

    “I suspect we’ll be challenged by urine-change deniers mustered by the soft drink industry.”

    Other international teams were honoured last night for failed doomsday predictions: the wasabi fire alarm, the theory of structured procrastination and the absence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise.

    Others laureates investigated why people sigh, the lack of dizziness in hammer throwers, the effect of armoured tanks on illegally parked luxury cars and the dangers of driving with floppy windscreen visors.

    “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize, and especially if you did, better luck next year,” Mr Abrahams said.

    Got to love that line: “I suspect we’ll be challenged by urine-change deniers mustered by the soft drink industry.”

  5. “…where they didn’t blame the CO2 in the beer for this, thank goodness….”

    But they still blamed humans. The press have brought us to the state where we look for the downside in every conceivable activity (pun intended :) …

  6. “are the ones that make mating mistakes”
    Rubbish it’s the beer that’s the common factor here ! most of my mating mistake have been because of the hop god and his goggles!

  7. Sounds like the typical male in town on a Saturday night. Too much time on the bottle and then can’t tell who/what they are sleeping with :0)

  8. Fellating bats (2010) and now incorrectly copulating beetles (albeit that it’s an old paper)? Do I detect a trend here?

  9. I’m not sure if it’s scientifically significant, but I recognize some parallels here with my own behavior in my twenties…

  10. Beautiful! The Igs have become a more believable prize than the originals lately – no Kissingers or Gores (etc., ad nauseam) need apply.

  11. Patrick Davis says: September 30, 2011 at 12:06 am
    ‘This is funny! And goes to show Australians will do anything for beer!’

    cf Ignoring the females, the males mounted or tried to climb up the bottles, refusing to leave. They fried to death in the sun, were eaten by hungry ants or had to be physically removed by the researchers.

    Yep, you have to feel sorry for those males in Australia Patrick!
    Unfortunately for them Fosters have sold out to UK.

    Given that the study is a 1983 one, and recycling of glass bottles and alumimium cans has been practiced since the mid-80s in most states of Australia Julodimorpha bakewelli males must have retreated to mating with their own or found another substitute in which to engage in sex with.

    Though the ‘remote areas’ of Australia- Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland still have not adopted basic practices in recycling and use value, a virtue humans have perfected. This is in-spite that a great reported % of their population’ propensity for consumption of ale and wine being apparently causative and correlated to the poor socio-economic outcomes in these regions. Which in itself is interesting given the population is highly attuned and connected to the natural environment, and some to Mother Gaia. Yet massive piles of beer [and wine cask bladders] can be seen in the outback which would presumably cause an inequilibrium in the natural state of …sex (as suggested by Gynne & Rentz).

    One would think there would be massive concern for the continuity and import of insect biodiversity. Beyond mead :) and the moiety systems (eg honey ant/yirliltu http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeypot_ant) in these desert and tropical environs.
    Reminds one of the classic study on industry and peppered moths.

    All very good and amusing Anthony!

    http://www.sha.org/bottle/glossary.htm

    and a stubby holder (now that the fellas need something to hold without the slippage, given the dimples disappeared with the advent of aluminium cans which are far more cost effective aka cartage costs and cost/time factors to chill!) http://stubbyholder.blogspot.com/

  12. Entomologists love to study sex. Bed bug males violently rape the female by piercing his external genitalia traumaticly through the abdominal wall. Most species of biting midges predate on other insects and after copulating the female pierces the head of the male and sucks his interior so that only a dry chitinoid shell is left. The mantis female eats the male while they are still copulating. There really is something for every taste!

  13. Funny. Funnier still though is the Google ad that appears at the end of the article which asks…”Looking for love? Start dating online”
    Dating online instead of on beer bottles I guess lol :)

  14. I love this. As an trained entomologist, as soon as I saw the photograph, I analyzed the beer bottle with the eyes of the male jewel beetle… same colour, same structure, same sheen, but bigger, much bigger – who can blame the poor male?! :-)

    Note that duping sex-crazed males of other species is widespread has evolved in the course of evolution numerous times – one example are the flowers of many orchids which bear uncanny resemblance to female bees of certain species, making males of the same species to land on top of the flowers in a futile attempt at mating, which leaves them covered with the flower’s pollen – unwitting pollinators… Of course, beetles frying on top of bottles is not quite in the same league. But beer bottles pose a far more serious risk to beetles – beer residue inside attracts ground beetles, which once inside the bottle cannot leave and die. I have found bottles crammed with tens upon tens of dead beetles as a result. But since, as the scientists duly reported, “western Australians never dispose of a beer bottle with beer still in it”, I guess this is not a major cause of beetle mortality in western Australia! :-)

  15. Baa Humbug says: September 30, 2011 at 3:54 am
    Dating online instead of on beer bottles I guess lol :)

    Trust a/the sheep to know!
    :o)

    Hey. Paul Maruff, wasn’t he one of the researchers that got national govt grants in the remote Aboriginal communites for neurological studies. The communities where researchers forgot to mention the 30 years of gross amounts of marijuana use [that is bongs manufactured with buckets], rape of and trade in children and teenagers, suicides confused (or not) with homicides and the use of customary law?
    Now that is an effective silencing.
    That’d be some variables to miss in the efficacy testing and reporting of neurological drugs and mental health programs in a controlled environment.
    A small eg:-
    2006 http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/rounds/projects/rga05.pdf
    2007 http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/rounds/projects/ACFEF.pdf
    2009 http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/rounds/projects/2009_NHMRC_Project_Grants.pdf

    Perhaps not much difference to the previous regime of govt grants that went to ‘petrol sniffing camps’ where the youth were isolated on outstations, forbidden western education and directed to traditional life activities for their ‘deviances’. Some escaped, but did not survive. http://www.supremecourt.nt.gov.au/archive/doc/judgements/2001/0/ntsc099.html

  16. “Males, in their eagerness to mate, are the ones that make mating mistakes.”

    I’ve made a few mating mistakes in my time. But then – who hasn’t?

  17. First off, he’s on the wrong end of the bottle.

    And second, I request a follow-up study on the effect this has on the female beetles’ self esteem.

  18. David, UK says: September 30, 2011 at 4:55 am
    I’ve made a few mating mistakes in my time. But then – who hasn’t?

    The Pope?

  19. It;s been a while since I left costly booze on a cheap monitor….

    But real;y how does that little bugger light a smoke after?

    oppose able thumb joke, people, badum-tish

  20. XXXX so named cos that either what you say after a taste of qlds “finest”
    or
    it XXXX cos they can’t spell BEER

    abc aus last week saturday had a All in the Mind show that actually had research on birds and bugs given larger and brighter coloured objects like eggs to see what theyd do.
    the birds all went for the nonbird substitute!
    ie a goose trying to sit on a softball. its round white and BIG so it must be a better egg!

  21. Note to self, do not serve beer when a good looking man comes calling. Oh wait. I’m Irish and my backside hasn’t seen the sun since I was a little girl. Never mind.

  22. Back in the mid-80s we drove from Melbourne to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock…lots of rough corrugated stuff in South Australia back then. What really depressed us was the sheer number of empty stubbies all along the way. You couldn’t stop anywhere without seeing the wretched things just tossed out. It was/is a real spoliation of beautiful country. I hope things have improved but I fear not, judging by the amount of stuff I regularly pick up along 800 metres of road-frontage where we stay on visits to Aus. Most of this stuff is beer cans and stubbies, with a good measure of fast food wrapping rubbish (the curse of McDonalds et al). As well as being an eyesore it is hazardous to birds and animals, especially when it is mangled up by the local council’s grass-cutting machinery.

    Poor old beetles, frustration and baking to death to boot!

  23. 1. At least this research appears to have been done honestly, with no concocted results. Unlike ‘climate science’.

    2. Now that they have some credibility, Gwynne and Rentz should be able to apply for funding to enable them to carry out follow-up studies.

  24. Wait. A biologist actually tried to get the bottle manufacturer to change their bottle on the grounds that: “Improperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and ‘visual’ hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species”? Surely he has some comprehension of how quickly this failure to distinguish a female beetle from a bottle will be weeded out by natural selection. If he really thinks beetles will not quickily adapt to such distractions he’s not much of a biologist.

  25. The Ig Nobel Prizes, a parody of the Nobel Prizes—–How long before Gore and the team get nominated, any thoughts?

  26. “The male in question, an Australian …, became so enamored with… … beer… … that he tried to…” ____________. Fill in the blank!

    The above has been edited for accuracy. :)

  27. Alec Rawls says (September 30, 2011 at 9:08 am): “Surely he has some comprehension of how quickly this failure to distinguish a female beetle from a bottle will be weeded out by natural selection.”

    That occurred to me, too, except I predict that the female beetles will evolve to resemble stubbies even more closely (if you can’t beat ‘em…). That could cause other problems, e.g. inebriated humans mistaking female beetles for stubbies.

  28. were conducting field work in Western Australia
    yeah, right! I’ve been there and the only field work there is generally involves beer … I rest my case … of beer. Let’s see .. oh, look! a beetle. Hmm….

  29. “The male in question, an Australian …, became so enamored with… … beer… … that he tried to…” lie down but stood up by accident

  30. they noticed something unusual along the side of the road.

    Hey! That IS science! Who knows where such an observation an lead!
    Flemming noticed bacteria didn’t care to be near moldy bread.
    Of course, separating the unusual vs. previously unobserved or unreported and unimportant is the trick.

  31. RE – mwhite says:
    September 30, 2011 at 3:11 am
    Not funny just strange

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8796084/Mystery-as-beached-whale-found-in-field-in-Yorkshire.html

    ”It is sad. It was in shallow water of about 1.2m (4ft) to 1.6m (5.25ft), making contact with the bottom,” 4 to 5 feet of water but managed to move 800 metres away from deep water.

    High tide – on a very very shallowly sloping shore, with spring [highest high] tides on 27th, and ecreasing . . . . .
    T’telegraph also said the sei was “the third largest species in the sea” [second paragraph in the hard copy – yup, I read it on my commuter train] but Blue, Fin, Sperm, Right and Bowhead whales are certainly heavier on average – the first two or three are longer, the others certainly comparable.
    If they mean the North Sea – “the third largest species in the Sea” perhaps – then possibly. Blues are certainly unusual there – indeed, most whales are.
    Not as bad as the [1996][Magnetic] north pole one.

    Ig – a thought-provoking award. magic coverge!

  32. @ Jessie
    Australians do not drink Fosters!
    South Australia has a very successful 10c refund deposit to ensure bottles are collected.

    That said, it was interesting to note that this recognition award waited 28 years to insure that the science is in….

    Rather intoxicating that the Australian jewel beetle conceived the evolutionary potential of a flying empty beer stubby.

  33. Interesting variation. In the story here, David Rentz doesn’t get a mention until the third paragraph. The version in the Australian doesn’t seem to mention Gwynne at all!

  34. Pamela, heh, I’m a whole lotta hot, good lookin’ man, hunny. So if I brought Miller high life tall boys along, could your backside be possibly coaxed outdoors?

  35. One wonders if that whale used to be a guided missile. Any sightings of a guy with two heads in that area?

  36. It should be noted that the species discussed in the Gwynne & Rentz paper is actually Julodimorpha saundersii, which at the time of their publication was considered a synonym of J. bakewellii. The former occurs throughout SW and Western Australia, while the latter is limited to eastern Australia. Refer to Bellamy & Wier (2008).

  37. Well, it just might be possible that an alternative explanation exists. Has anyone considered the possibility that the beetles were in fact achievng sexual saisfaction? I’ve read that a pig’s orgasm lasts 30 minutes.

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