The weird world of science in 2019

Rats learned to drive tiny cars and loved it

Rats driving promo
Unlike our driving lessons, tests showed rats were less stressed when ‘driving’. Credit: University of Richmond

To the ratmobile! In October, we learned a team of US scientists had been spending their time wisely – teaching rats to drive tiny cars in return for sugary cereal treats. There were no reported incidents of road-ent rage – the rats loved their verminous vehicles and, unlike our own driving lessons, hormone tests showed learning to drive steered the rats away from stress. The sweet rodent rides consisted of a clear plastic jar fixed to a metal plate, all attached to a set of wheels with a copper wire acting as a starter and steering wheel. The researchers found rats raised in fun homes made better drivers than rats raised in boring conditions, but driving reduced stress for all of them, as well as being just plain adorable. The researchers said tasks that reduce stress could be useful in treating mental illness, although human patients may wish to avoid rush hour traffic.

Sh*tting it over Xmas with the in-laws? You may be on Boxing Day

If you’re worried about the prospect of spending an awkward Christmas with the in-laws, you might find yourself literally sh*tting yourself once it’s all over, according to a small Dutch study published in November. The researchers examined the ‘Yule logs’ of 24 people and found the stress of visiting your partner’s parents can alter the bugs that live in your gut. People who’d been through that particular ordeal had less of a type of friendly bacteria called Ruminococcaceae in their festive “Mr Hankeys” than those who’d had a supposedly less stressful Christmas with their own families. Previous research has shown that low levels of these bacteria are found in people with depression and mice under stress. The researchers must surely also win the prize for most unusual opening sentence of a scientific study: “Christmas and faeces appear to have a traditional yet mysterious connection.”

People posted some seriously NSFW pics to Reddit to get an STD diagnosis

If you found yourself with a nasty sexually transmitted disease, you’d head to a trained medical professional, right? Not so for hundreds of Reddit users, who instead decided the sensible thing to do was turn to the wisdom of the internet, and include some graphic pics of the offending STDs for good measure. US researchers revealed in November that their sample of 500 posts from a Reddit thread on STDs since 2010 showed more than half were requests for a diagnosis, and around a third of those included a photo. Whatever you think of Reddit as a sex doctor, the service was at least pretty swift, with most posts receiving a reply within hours. However, the researchers did not elaborate on the accuracy of the crowd-sourced diagnoses, and suggest doctors should engage with Reddit to reduce the potential harm caused by armchair doctors.

Canned laughter made us chortle at dreadful ‘dad jokes’

How do you make a dad joke funny? By adding a laugh track – just ask generations of sitcom writers! If you’re struggling to get the giggles from your workmates with your corny humour, UK researchers reported in July that a recorded laugh track may be just what you need, but make sure those fake laughs sound natural to muster the most mirth. They asked people to rate deliberately dreadful dad jokes on a scale of one to ten. A separate group, including some people with autism, were then asked to rate the jokes when accompanied by laugh tracks composed either of forced laughs, or of genuine recorded laughter. Everyone found the jokes funnier with the canned laughter, especially when it was genuine.

Snowball the dancing cockatoo put our dancefloor moves to shame

In July, a pretty damn cool sulphur-crested cockatoo called Snowball put all our best dance moves to shame when a video surfaced of the badass bird rocking out in true style to “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. Snowball showed off 14 spontaneous, diverse dance moves, much like we attempt to at nightclubs, pulling them off with considerably more finesse than some human dancefloor divas. Most animals are wallflowers when it comes to busting their moves to music, even our closest primate cousins – only parrots have been known to boogie on down to the beat. The researchers said Snowball’s dance display may be a sign of genuine creativity, and his moves may be an effort to bond with his human ‘flock’. 

Zombie pigs (nearly) rose from the dead

In April, US and Italian scientists announced they’d achieved a rasher-rection of sorts, partially restoring brain function in pigs that had been dead for four hours, and challenging the idea that the mammalian brain is damaged beyond repair by a lack of oxygen almost as soon as the heart stops. They used a system called BrainEx, which mimics normal blood flow, to pump blood through the brains of 32 decapitated pig heads fresh from the abattoir for six hours, and watched as brain cells survived longer than usual and some cell activity resumed. Some activity was even seen in the animals’ synapses – the connections between brain cells. But it wasn’t enough to save their bacon – the pigs’ brains did not recover normal function, awareness or perception. The researchers said a more complete recovery might be possible were they to pump blood through the deceased brains for longer than six hours. But for now, bringing cryogenically frozen people, or pigs, back from the dead remains impossible.

Your heartburn was nothing compared to an Aussie bloke whose chest literally caught fire

If you thought your heartburn was bad, spare a thought for this poor Aussie bloke whose chest cavity literally caught fire during emergency surgery. Doctors reported the incendiary incident in June, and said the flare-up occurred as the unfortunate patient was having a torn artery repaired. They’d had to increase the oxygen content of his anaesthetic to 100 per cent, when a spark from a cauterising device caused a surgical pack to burst into flames. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished immediately, and the man escaped unscathed. Perhaps they should have prescribed some anti-inflammatories.

Scientists built a ZOMBIE FUNGUS CANNON!

Just in time for Halloween, Dutch and Danish scientists announced in October that they’d built an artificial zombie fungus cannon. Yes, you read that right, a ZOMBIE FUNGUS CANNON! The bizarre contraption was based on the projectile weapon used by the fungus Entomophthora muscae. This ‘zombie’ fungus infects house flies, growing into their brains and controlling their behaviour before killing them. The fungus grows cannon-like stems from the corpse of the unfortunate fly, and a build-up of fluid ejects a jet of goo which carries the fungal spores to their next victim. Presumably inspired by the beauty of nature, the researchers decided to make their own tiny cannon, and used it to show that the real thing is an effective way for the sinister fungus to spread its spores to a new host.

Chimps and bonobos bonded over binge-worthy TV too

Netflix and chill? How about Netflix and chimp? We learned in July that chimps and their close relatives bonobos bond while bingeing boxsets, presumably enjoying the new season of ‘Orangutan is the New Black’ the most. US and German researchers said they’d showed 17 chimps and seven bonobos, some of our closest animal relatives, a video of a baby chimp playing. They were shown the frankly adorable-sounding movie in three different situations – with a human, with another ape, or on their own. The researchers found our ape cousins were more sociable towards their viewing partners after enjoying the video, perhaps discussing the finer plot points, suggesting that bonding over shared experiences is not unique to humans, and may have evolved earlier than we thought. Just don’t let them see Planet of the Apes.

At 125.4 dB, the world’s loudest bird was louder than a rock concert 

Annoyed by your neighbours’ dog’s incessant barking or their constant use of garden power tools? Just be thankful you don’t live next door to Procnias albus, the world’s loudest bird. Known as the white bellbird, this serious screamer could just as easily be called the white decibelbird, clocking in at an impressive 125.4 dB. That’s louder than a chainsaw or a rock concert, and much louder than the level considered safe for human hearing – around 85dB. It’s also three times louder than its closest cacophonous competitor, the screaming piha. Brazilian and US scientists released recordings of the Amazonian bird in October, revealing that the male saves his most deafening effort for females perched beside him, swivelling to blast his song’s final note directly into the ears of his long-suffering, and presumably hard-of-hearing, mate. 

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