It’s not that hilarious but then you’d be careful never to smile at a alligator. Stephan Reber and colleagues performed the experiment to try to understand how alligators might communicate. It was a serious piece of research but its slightly comedic aspects have just won the team an Ig Nobel Prize. Ten such awards were handed out on Thursday by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research.
The annual Igs are intended as a bit of a spoof on the more sober Nobel science prizes.
Other 2020 winners included the team that devised a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows; and the group that wanted to see what happened when earthworms were vibrated at high frequency.
All this kind of stuff sounds daft, but when you dig a little deeper you realise much of the research lauded by the Ig Nobels is actually intended to tackle real-world problems and gets published in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals.
Dr Reber told BBC News he was honoured to receive the Ig.
His team’s study had attempted to show that crocodilians and other reptiles could advertise their body size through their vocalisations – something that mammals and birds can do when they call out.
“The resonances in your vocal tract sound lower overall if you’re larger because it’s a larger space in which the air can vibrate. We didn’t know if reptiles actually had resonances. Frogs, amphibians, don’t for example. So we needed a proof of concept that crocodilians actually have resonances,” he explained.
This was achieved by putting an alligator in an enclosed tank that could be filled alternately with normal air and a supply of oxygen and helium (heliox). The vibrations of the vocal tissues don’t change but the noise the animals are able to make will, because the speed of sound is different in the different gas mixtures.
The analysis of the frequency spectrum confirmed alligators’ body size does indeed correlate with the resonances they produce. “Although whether the animals can pick up on these cues, I haven’t tested,” the Lund University, Sweden, researcher said.
This is the 30th year the Ig Nobels have been presented.
Their usual home is the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US; and the event is always a riotous affair that involves lots of paper plane throwing and a small girl who shouts “boring” at anyone who talks for too long.
But the Covid-19 crisis forced this year’s ceremony online.
Even so, some traditions were maintained, like the involvement of real Nobel Laureates. Dr Reber’s team was presented with its Ig by Andre Geim, the UK-based researcher who won the Physics Nobel in 2010 for his work on graphene.
The Prof is something of a superstar having also won an Ig earlier in his career for levitating frogs.
Originally published by BBC