GETTING HOTTER: The dung beetle with its silicone boots. Picture: WITS
GETTING HOTTER: The dung beetle with its silicone boots. Picture: WITS

A SET OF boots and caps for dung beetles has secured University of the Witwatersrand professor Marcus Byrne and his colleagues this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for biology and astronomy.

The prizes are organised by the humour magazine Annals of Improbable Science, which says they are intended to recognise science that "first makes you laugh and then makes you think". They are considered somewhat of a coup for the attention they draw to winners.

"We are very excited about it," said Prof Byrne on Thursday in a telephone interview from Boston where he was putting the finishing touches to his one-minute acceptance speech before Thursday night’s award ceremony.

His speech included the message "you can’t do science without balls", he said, and he had no intention of accidentally-on-purpose leaving behind the "tacky homemade award" he was due to receive later that evening.

"Apparently there is an eight-year-old girl who will dictate the length of our speeches. When she gets bored, she starts interrupting. We plan to ply her with sweets," he said.

Prof Byrne shares the award with three colleagues based in Sweden: Marie Dacke, Emily Baird and Eric Warrant.

The scientists designed tiny, luminous green silicon boots for dung beetles to help figure out how the insects cope with heat. They found the beetles wearing the cooling boots climbed on top of their dung balls less frequently than those without the apparel, and concluded that moisture evaporating from the dung balls helped keep the beetles’ feet cool.

They also found that the dung beetles seemed to preen themselves when they sat on top of their dung balls in the midday heat, apparently wiping their faces and legs with regurgitated liquid from the dung balls.

Further research showed that dung beetles used the light of the Milky Way to orientate themselves so they could roll their balls of dung away from competitors at the poo pile.

"Once you get started the dung beetle is just irresistible," said Prof Byrne. "We have even discovered a dung beetle that gallops."

On a more serious note, he said dung beetles provided an important model for exploring questions about animal behaviour, and played a critical role in their natural environment.

Both dung beetles and South Africans have featured at the Ig Nobel award ceremony before. In 1999, Charl Fourie and Michelle Wong won the Ig Nobel Prize for peace for designing a car alarm replete with a flame thrower to fend off would-be hijackers.

And in 2006, Kuwaiti scientists won the Ig Nobel Prize for nutrition for research that showed dung beetles were fussy eaters that much preferred horse dung to sheep droppings.