Nobel Prize Winning Tortoise Research!! (sort of…)

Last night Harvard University gave out the 21st annual Ig Nobel Prize. Whats that? Well, its a prize handed out by the group Improbable Research  that “collect[s] (and sometimes conduct) improbable research. We publish a magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, and we administer the Ig Nobel Prizes.” Improbable research is given the succinct definition, by the group itself, as research that “makes people laugh and then think.” Personally I can’t really think of a better type of research (you know.. unless one can cure my MS and/or make Zoya live healthy and happy for the entirety of her, pre-defined by science, appropriate life span). 

Anyway, the Ig Nobel prize is presented annually by their editorial board which is comprised of, fantastically, several Nobel Prize winners and a convicted felon. HA! Why does this matter to Tort-Time readers you ask? Well first off, I think it should matter to everyone because academia needs a sense of humor and I’m glad to know its out there, and second because this years winner clearly appreciated tortoises as much as we do! These fine folks won by asking the question (and doing the research) “when your Red Foot tortoise yawns, is it contagious?”.

Anna Wilkinson, from the University of Lincoln, and colleagues took home the physiology prize for their study examing whether the red-footed tortoise exhibits contagious yawning. They worked hard for it, too. Wilkinson says it took about six months to train Alexandra, one of the tortoises, to yawn on command. Then they looked at whether six other tortoises yawned after she did. No dice. 

The results didn’t surprise the team. While animals from fish to birds to lions yawn, the only ones known to be susceptible to contagious yawning are humans and “higher primates.” The thinking is that the phenomenon is a result of empathy, or inferring how others are feeling. Wilkinson says the findings lend weight to this idea. “It suggests that a relatively high level mechanism may be controlling the behavior.”

So not to worry, your other torties are safe from your early risers yawns! And more importantly, lets stop blaming our torts for our yawns and lethargy. We can only blame this one on our need to stay up all night reading tumblr posts and looking at cute animal pictures online…. Or maybe we need our own UVB light now that the days are shorter. 

There were some pretty fabulous winners in other categories that aren’t so relevant here, but I’d check them out if you get a chance. 

Audubon Magazine

Improbable Research