Friday, 2 December 2011

Beetles on the Bottle

I guess I should make some mention of our recent "success" at winning the 2011 Ig-Nobel prize for Biology. Darryl Gwynne and I were presented with the award in September at Harvard University at the annual Ig-Nobel ceremonies. These unique, and quintessentially "Harvard", activities were attended by over 1200 enthusiastic students, scientists and members of the public. A sword-swallower helped "get them in the mood" as a warm-up. No tricks, he really did swallow a most formidable piece of steel. He told us that sword-swallowers sometimes make mistakes! I guess they do. But I digress.

Darryl and I made the observations in the early 80's when I was at the start of my career at CSIRO and Darryl was doing extended fieldwork and teach at the University of Western Australia.

On a warm morning, we noticed large aerial Jewel Beetles (Burprestidae) that were cruising and landing on the ground. We were soon to discover that they were settling on cast-off stubbies ("Australian" for small beer bottles). We observed multiple instances of beetles doing the same thing. They were later identified as Julidomorpha bakewellii. The beetle is now called J. saundersii.

The beetles were mistaking the bottles for females of their own species, being attracted to both the colour and the little tubercles at the bottom of the bottle. The bottles were, in effect, super females! But alas, it is a love story with an unhappy ending. Note the ants at the base of the beetle above.
The ants were actively pulling the love-starved beetles to the ground and dismembering them. Note the bits and pieces and the dead beetle to the left of centre at the bottom of the photo.

We did the requisite experiments, placing bottles of various colours, sizes and shapes around the habitat but the beetles were attracted only to the type above. You can see from the condition of the bottle that it had been there for a long time and was responsible for the "happy" ending of many male beetles. This was written up as a short article in the Journal of the Australian Entomological Society. We were and still are, very surprised at the notoriety all this has spawned. At the time we appeared on numerous talk-back shows and were the subject of many news articles. The above article appeared in 2007! A video was later produced by the BBC illustrating the phenomenon. Winning the Ig-Nobel created a spate of interviews and more articles.

By the way, we contacted the Swan Brewing Company suggesting they modify their bottles so they are not attractive to the beetles but never received an answer. However, it was noted that the "tubercles" eventually disappeared from beer bottles. This coupled with the deposit that is placed on beer bottles may have helped conserve the dwindling Western Australian Jewel Beetle fauna. By far their worst enemy is not from mistaken sexual experiences but from development-especially the destruction of their habitat for agriculture and/or mining.


Snail said...

Lawks! I remember when this work first hit the headlines. It took long enough for the IgNobel committee to take notice.

What form did the award take?

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Very cool! It's nice to read this stuff from the horse's mouth, so to speak. I first heard from a fellow blogger at the end of September:

Mr. Smiley said...

The Ig-Nobel Award was a wood plaque of the periodic Chart of the Elements and a paper certificate. Darryl's wife is having a duplicate copy of the plaque so we can both have one! Once it's received here, I'll post a pix of it and the certificate. (I'm not one on publicity; that's why it's taken this long to get this on the blog).

Thanks Snail and Katie

Snail said...

I look forward to seeing the plaque.

And I forgot to congratulate you. (I thought it, but didn't type it.) So congrats!

randomtruth said...

Congrats again Dave. Can't believe they didn't give you guys 2 periodic table tables though!