Humorous science: Animal mapping and ecology

Dec 2021 | No Comment

This paper highlights amusing research related to the animal kingdom, improving our understanding of animal behaviour, ecology and conservation, often by employing spatial tools and innovative approaches to data collection and analysis.

Volker Janssen

Publications Officer, Association of Public Authority Surveyors (APAS), New South Wales, Australia

This is the fourth in a series of papers celebrating some of the weird and wonderful research findings hidden amongst the scientific literature. It aims to ensure that we remember the funnier side of science and provides answers to questions we may have been too afraid to ask. This study was conducted entirely in the author’s spare time and is in no way related to his employer. Here, we examine selected research focussing on animal mapping, behaviour, ecology and conservation. Ecology is the study of the relationships living organisms have with respect to each other and their natural environment.


McNoleg (1996) reported on several breakthroughs in the field of geomatics and demonstrated their application in a particularly difficult habitat mapping exercise for the endangered haggis. This 4-legged mammal is mainly native to the Scottish Highlands and unique because it has one pair of legs (either on the left or right side) that is shorter than the other pair. This evolutionary adaption allows it to easily walk around the very steep mountainous terrain in either clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, depending on its legs. Understandably, haggis have a natural aversion to any other plane of movement, preferring areas where the angle of slope is within a certain tolerance of the difference in height between opposite pairs of legs. After finding its niche, each haggis walks the same path around a hill for its entire life, creating an effect akin to a contour line (which can be visible in aerial and satellite images) due to soil compaction and the reduction in vegetation cover.

By substituting the traditional fuzzy logic image processing technique with misty logic (found more suitable for the environmental conditions encountered in Scotland), introducing a neural-network approach to evidence combination and adopting an innovative data structure hierarchy (Polymorphic Euclidean Adaptive Region tree, PEARtree), the path for each haggis was modelled based on a combination of environmental, spectral, spatial, economic, temporal, taxonomic and astrologic data. A mathematical derivation (even the most outrageous ideas can look credible if expressed using complex symbology) showed that haggis habitats can also be located from geophysical data sources. Due to the forces at play when a well-fed, sodden haggis rolls downhill after losing its footing, the path taken can be detected as an extremely bright localised streak in gravitational anomaly maps and therefore be identified via image differencing. However, it was noted that no haggis tracks were detected despite the sophisticated analyses applied, leading McNoleg (1996) to conclude that the haggis is even more endangered than anticipated. On a more serious note, this paper also drew attention to the peer-review process and that some authors include large amounts of buzzwords in titles and (unnecessarily) complex maths to increase the paper’s chance of acceptance.

Addressing efforts to ensure the survival of the haggis (particularly as it is also considered a Scottish delicacy), King et al. (2007) pioneered the use of ultrasonography in its reproductive management and introduced new genetic material to improve the animal’s welfare and productivity under farmed conditions. Selective breeding successfully increased body length, reduced hair coat, modified (drinking) behaviour, reduced seasonality and increased fank (litter) size. However, the uneven leg length remained a problem as it requires the provision of suitably inclined grazing.

By introducing genetic material from haggis native to the southern hemisphere via artificial insemination, they intended to produce even-legged haggis that could graze on flat land. The resulting fank contained nine hagglets with four being the desired even-legged variety of medium leg length, two exhibiting longer left legs, two exhibiting longer right legs, and one occurrence of the unexpected and worrying diagonally long-legged state (Figure 1). This state sometimes occurs in the wild where affected animals cope by grazing the sides of narrow ditches and streams with their two long legs in the water and their two shorter legs on either bank. It was emphasised that further research is required to prevent reoccurrence of this state under farming conditions and that the diagonally long-legged hagglet has been adopted by a lady in a Scottish village where it is living happily on a diet of hand-picked heather and Old Pulteney.

Drop bears

The tagging and tracking of animals has been a vital tool in the quest to better understand animal behaviour and ecology. The use of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technology has been responsible for significant advances by providing accurate and frequent estimates of the changing distributions of many rare animal species. However, it is extremely difficult to apply conventional methods to the drop bear, a predatory Australian marsupial closely resembling the koala, which hunts by dropping out of a tree and skilfully latching onto the victim’s neck to kill its prey. The dense tree canopy regularly causes extended periods of complete GNSS signal loss, and sensors are often damaged during attacks on prey.

Addressing this problem, Janssen (2012, 2013) proposed an indirect GNSS-based approach by tracking the prey rather than the predator. Using bushwalkers equipped with GNSS and heavy-duty helmets to pinpoint the location and timing of drop bear attacks, he successfully estimated the number and spatial distribution of drop bears the study area (Figure 2). This research also provided valuable insights into the animal’s hunting behaviour, confirming that foreigners are much more likely to be dropped on than Australians and indicating that drop bears do not necessarily target the last person walking in a line. Fortunately, bushwalkers can protect themselves from drop bear attacks, e.g. by wearing forks in their hair, spreading Vegemite behind their ears or under their armpits, urinating on themselves, and avoiding talking in a foreign language or non-Australian accent. Drop bears may be identified by lying down beneath a tree and spitting upwards (a sleeping drop bear will most likely wake up and spit back). However, this method includes some risk, with potentially devastating consequences if drop bears are on the hunt for prey or in the middle of the mating season.

The original journal paper (Janssen, 2012) was intended to demonstrate how a research paper should be written, that science can be fun and to increase awareness of GNSS technology (and drop bears, of course). These goals have been achieved, with the paper attracting much attention from Australia and overseas, including in the media. It quickly and unexpectedly became the most downloaded paper in the journal’s online history. For obvious reasons, we can use this study to briefly explore how such a humorous paper was received.

Excerpts of the received feedback include:

• “We incorporate drop bear numbers in our Integrated Forest Condition Assessment Methodology (IFCAM). Drop bear encounters represent an important opportunity to include citizen science in our programs, through voluntary reporting (or nonreporting, as the case may be).”

• “We will adopt your GNSS technology as part of our now revised field risk assessments. I have forwarded your paper to our WHS [Work Health and Safety] officers regarding the threat posed to staff. This will result in a number of working parties to be established to assess insurance and WHS implications of this threat from undergraduate students through to senior staff venturing into the field.”

• “We at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum salute you. Most Australian veterans are aware of drop bears and have conscientiously offered warnings on at least one occasion to their more junior or newer members.”

• “I am especially grateful for the tips regarding Vegemite application. I don’t believe GNSS has ever drawn more interest from a wider audience than when combined with one of Australia’s most fascinating creatures.”

• “We have a real problem with drop bears here in Logan [Queensland], so this research is much appreciated.”

• “It is general knowledge around these parts that drop bears almost seem to have a craving for tourists visiting the Gippsland Lakes [Victoria]. Boat tours are now offering discount prices on neck braces and thick woolen scarves to try and thwart any attempts of a ‘lock on’ by any fury offender.”

• “We at the University of Exeter [England] are really enjoying your drop bear paper – despite our Head of School being Australian, few people had heard of drop bears and most fell for it until they hit the Vegemite section. I am a biologging ecologist and this paper is going to become a classic for my future teaching.”

• “I shared the article with friends and colleagues and all but one loved it. This one colleague almost fell for it. She checked out the Australian Museum webpage and it took a while before she cottoned on (well, she’s from South Africa and has only been here a couple of years, so we’ll let her off). I especially enjoyed the references.”

• “It is brilliantly executed – had me weeping with laughter. The references alone are very, very clever. Thank you for injecting fabulous humour and wit into the dry halls of academia.”

• “Your article has inspired me as an outstanding example of scholarly and nationally significant research, innovative study design, and the timely dissemination of findings. I am sharing the article widely – my colleagues in the Academy of Science and CSIRO are impressed by its citability.”

• “The paper should be required reading for all PhD students on how to construct a journal paper, and to teach them a bit of Australia that I thought had been lost for the last 30 years. I have just added it to the reading list for the [students’ field trip] and the suggestion that their lunch should be Vegemite sandwiches.”

• “Your ground-breaking research on drop bears is an invaluable tool for environmental lawyers. Many thanks for this worthy contribution to the study of Australia’s biodiversity. The walls were shaking with laughter.”

These examples clearly show the positive impact humorous science can have. However, it must be noted that (very little) negative feedback was also received, even including an accusation of academic misconduct. Apparently, the humorous nature of the paper was not clear enough to everyone. Hopefully this study and the wide-ranging, interdisciplinary discussions it was able to initiate amongst professionals and the general public will not only contribute to a happier coexistence of drop bears and humans but also encourage others to embrace the funny side of science.

Other amazing animals

Several other studies have successfully unlocked mysteries in the animal kingdom. Dacke et al. (2013) showed that dung beetles use the Milky Way for orientation. They experimentally determined that dung beetles transport their dung balls along straight paths under a starlit sky but lose this ability under overcast conditions. On a starlit night, beetles were released with their dung balls from the centre of a circular arena of levelled sand. This was repeated after obscuring the beetles’ dorsal visual fields with small cardboard caps to prevent them from seeing celestial cues. Filming the beetles from above, their rolling paths were reconstructed and measured, clearly showing much shorter radial paths under clear conditions (Figure 3). In a planetarium, the beetles orientated equally well under a full starlit sky or the Milky Way only but took much longer when presented with only the 18 brightest stars or total darkness. Dung beetles therefore do not rely on a single bright (guiding) star but use the band of light representing the Milky Way for orientation, most likely not being able to discriminate individual stars.

In a paper whose initial findings were presented at a conference as ‘How do wombats make cubed poo?’ but which received a more mundane title upon publication, Yang et al. (2021) explained this mystery about a muchloved Australian marsupial renowned for its unique production of cubic faeces. Combining experimental and numerical elements of the study, it was shown that these cubes are formed within the last 17% of the intestine, exhibiting regions with a two-fold increase in thickness and a four-fold increase in stiffness, which facilitates the formation of corners by contractions of the intestine. Wombats use these faeces as markings within their territory, deposited in aggregations found on or next to distinctive landscape features, such as prominent rocks, logs, small rises and burrow entrances. Their cubic form prevents the faeces from rolling off these raised surfaces.

Meyer-Rochow and Gal (2003) investigated the pressures produced when penguins poo. Measuring the distance the faecal material travels before it hits the ground, its density and viscosity, and the shape, aperture and height above ground of the rectal vent (Figure 4), they calculated that adult penguins generate pressures of around 10 kPa to expel watery material (corresponding to the pressure occurring at the bottom of a 1 m water column) and 60 kPa to expel material of higher viscosity similar to olive oil. The forces involved are well above those known for humans but do not lead to an energetically wasteful turbulent flow. Whether a penguin chooses the direction into which it decides to expel its faeces, and what role the wind plays in this regard, currently remains unknown.

Moving on to farm animals, Harvey et al. (2002) analysed the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces to help improve work health and safety associated with sheep shearing. An experiment using eight experienced shearers, five sheep and 400 trials in total revealed significant changes in the mean dragging force depending on surface texture and slope. The best option was found to be a floor sloped at 1:10 (5.6°) constructed of timber battens that are oriented parallel to the path of the drag, resulting in a 15% reduction of the mean dragging force compared to the worst combination tested. While amusing to others, this research will be much appreciated by shearers who drag and shear up to 200 sheep per day.

In a more obscure example, Ghirlanda et al. (2002) determined that chickens prefer beautiful humans. By averaging 35 individual images each of males and females, average male and female faces were generated. A third face was obtained by averaging these two averages. Graphical image manipulation (linear extrapolation based on pixel patterns) was then used to create four additional faces, showing either exaggerated male or female traits, resulting in a set of seven faces increasing in femininity from left to right (Figure 5a). Biology students (7 males, 7 females) were asked to rate all faces, in random order and on a scale from 0 to 10, according to how desirable it would be to go on a date with the portrayed person. The total scores collected by each face were transformed into relative scores, allowing comparison with animal data. Chickens (2 roosters, 4 hens) were first trained by being rewarded with food after pecking at the average male (hens) or female (roosters) face and then shown all seven faces at random. The results showed that human and chicken behaviour was almost identical (Figure 5b), thus proving that chickens prefer beautiful humans.

Hart et al. (2013) demonstrated that dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field by measuring the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of different breeds during defaecation and urination over almost two years (7,475 observations in total). The dataset was sorted according to the geomagnetic conditions prevailing during the respective sampling periods, and relative declination and intensity changes of the magnetic field during the dog walks were calculated. Circular statistics revealed that dogs preferred to excrete with their body aligned along the north-south axis under calm magnetic field conditions but abolished this directional behaviour under unstable conditions.

The best predictor of the behavioural switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e. the polar orientation of the magnetic field, rather than geomagnetic intensity changes. However, it was noted that calm magnetic conditions occurred in only 30% of all cases.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilkinson et al. (2011) found no evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise, although it was not for lack of trying. Over 6 months, a demonstrator tortoise was trained to yawn when presented with a red stimulus. Six observer tortoises were then exposed to three conditions: observation of trained yawn, observation of non-yawning demonstrator (non-demonstration control) and observation of red square-shaped stimulus without demonstrator present (stimulus-only control). Measuring the number of yawns for each observer animal in each condition revealed no significant difference between conditions, even after increasing the number of trained yawns presented. Considering that the tortoises may not view the trained yawn as a real yawn, another experiment used videorecorded stimuli (real yawn, trained yawn and empty background), again showing no significant difference. This null result suggests that contagious yawning is not the result of a fixed action pattern but involves more complex social processes.

Finally, Reimers and Eftestol (2012) investigated the response behaviour of reindeer towards humans and humans disguised as polar bears. They measured response distances (alert, flight initiation and escape) for reindeer from a stalking polar bear and improvised approaches from a person disguised as a polar bear for comparison with human encounters. Alert distance is the distance from the approacher when the reindeer exhibited an increased alert response while staring at the approacher. Flight initiation distance is the distance from the approacher when the reindeer initially took flight. Escape distance is the shortest straightline distance from where the reindeer took flight to where it resumed grazing or bedded down. It was found that these response distances, measured using a laser rangefinder, were up to 2.5 times longer when reindeer were encountered by a person disguised as a polar bear compared to a person in hiking gear, showing a higher perceived threat level regarding polar bears. The similar reindeer response behaviour observed from one encounter with a real polar bear and five encounters with persons disguised as polar bears indicated a predator-prey relationship between the two species. This was explained by a polar bear population increase and sea-ice cover decrease during summer, resulting in more frequent interactions with reindeer.


The selected studies have provided entertaining and somewhat unexpected insights into animal behaviour and ecology, often employing spatial tools and innovative approaches to data collection and analysis. It is hoped that these important research efforts will continue, so we can further advance our understanding of the animal kingdom, allow animal conservation practices to be enhanced, and have some fun along the way. In particular, further research is required to fill the current knowledge gap related to mysterious animals such as the bunyip, hoop snake or gravel shark.


Dacke M., Baird E., Byrne M., Scholtz C.H. and Warrant E.J. (2013) Dung beetles use the Milky Way for orientation, Current Biology, 23(4), 298-300.

Ghirlanda S., Jansson L. and Enquist M. (2002) Chickens prefer beautiful humans, Human Nature, 13(3), 383-389.

Hart V., Novakova P., Malkemper E.P., Begall S., Hanzal V., Jezek M., Kusta T., Nemcova V., Adamkova J., Benediktova K., Cerveny J. and Burda H. (2013) Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field, Frontiers in Zoology, 10, 80.

Harvey J.T., Culvenor J., Payne W., Cowley S., Lawrance M., Stuart D. and Williams R. (2002) An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces, Applied Ergonomics, 33(6), 523-531.

Janssen V. (2012) Indirect tracking of drop bears using GNSS technology, Australian Geographer, 43(4), 445-452.

Janssen V. (2013) Tracking the prey rather than the predator with GNSS, Coordinates, 9(6), 8-15.

King A.M., Cromarty L., Paterson C. and Boyd J.S. (2007) Applications of ultrasonography in the reproductive management of Dux magnus gentis venteris saginati, Veterinary Record, 160(3), 94-96.

McNoleg O. (1996) The integration of GIS, remote sensing, expert systems and adaptive co-kriging for environmental habitat modeling of the highland haggis using object-oriented, fuzzy-logic and neural-network techniques, Computers & Geosciences, 22(5), 585-588.

Meyer-Rochow V.B. and Gal J. (2003) Pressures produced when penguins pooh – Calculations on avian defaecation, Polar Biology, 27(1), 56-58.

Reimers E. and Eftestol S. (2012) Response behaviors of Svalbard reindeer towards humans and humans disguised as polar bears on Edgeoya, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 44(4), 483-489.

Wilkinson A., Sebanz N., Mandl I. and Huber L. (2011) No evidence of contagious yawning in the redfooted tortoise Geochelone carbonaria, Current Zoology, 57(4), 477-484.

Yang P.J., Lee A.B., Chan M., Kowalski M., Qiu K., Waid C., Cervantes G., Magondu B., Biagioni M., Vogelnest L., Martin A., Edwards A., Carver S. and Hu D.L. (2021) Intestines of non-uniform stiffness mold the corners of wombat feces, Soft Matter, 17(3), 475-488.

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