(Images: University of Toronto Mississauga)
Besotted beetles are dying while trying to get it on with discarded brown beer bottles, according to research conducted by Darryl Gwynne, a University of Toronto Mississauga professor.
It's a case of mistaken attraction, because the beer bottles happen to possess all of the features that drive male Australian jewel beetles wild. They're big and orangey brown in color, with a slightly dimpled surface near the bottom (designed to prevent the bottle from slipping out of one's grasp) that reflects light in much the same way as female wing covers.
As a result, the beer bottles are irresistible to the male insects, which will die trying to mate with them in the hot Australian sun.
Gwynne made these observations with colleague David Rentz. This week they were awarded with an Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University.
The Ig Nobel Prizes, a parody of the Nobel Prizes, are awarded annually by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research to "first make people laugh and then make them think." The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology.
"I'm honored, I think," Gwynne, who is a professor of biology, was quoted as saying in a press release. "Really, we've been sitting here by the phone for the past 20-plus years waiting for the call. Why did it take them so long?"
Gwynne and Rentz were conducting fieldwork in western Australia when they noticed something unusual along the side of the road.
He explained, "We were walking along a dirt road with the usual scattering of beer cans and bottles when we saw about six bottles with beetles on top or crawling up the side. It was clear the beetles were trying to mate with the bottles."
The bottles –- stubbies as they are known in Australia, Canada and a few other countries –- resemble a "super female" jewel beetle. Male beetles are so captivated by the bottles that they will gird their loins and go through the expected motions, refusing to leave until they fry to death, are consumed by hungry ants, or are physically removed by researchers.
The male beetles are very particular about the bottles. Beer cans or wine bottles do nothing for them. It's all about the shape, color and texture and has nothing to do with booze. As the researchers wrote in their findings, "Not only do western Australians never dispose of a beer bottle with beer still in it, but many of the bottles had sand and detritus accumulated over many months."
While the researchers and Ig Nobel judges obviously see the humor in all of this, there's a serious message too, according to Gwynne. The findings demonstrate how our garbage not only litters landscapes but can also directly affect the populations of other species.
And second, Gwynne points out that the research supports a theory of sexual selection: that males of certain species, in their eagerness to mate, are often the ones making mating mistakes.