Proud to be Ignoble

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Terry Lavender

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Larry Dill is proud to be considered ignoble.

The Simon Fraser University biologist earned the title in September when he was awarded the Ig Noble prize in biology for showing that herring apparently communicate by expelling air from their anuses - farting, in other words.

The prizes, which are awarded annually at Harvard University, honour research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. “The Igs are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative, and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology,” according to the awards website

Dill and his colleagues - former SFU post-doctoral student Ben Wilson from the University of British Columbia, and Robert Batty from the Scottish Association for Marine Science - made the discovery by accident while investigating whether herring could hear the sounds made by predators such as killer whales and porpoises.

Not only do the herring hear the echo location calls made by the predators, they themselves make similar sounds by “blowing bubbles out their anuses,” Dill says.

He says they weren't able to determine why herring make these sounds, although it seems it might be for social reasons as they emit more bubbles when other herring are present. Herring seem to be the only fish that make such sounds, Dill and his colleagues say in their paper published in Biology Letters last year.

“It's not really farting, since they're expelling air, not digestive gasses,” Dill says.

“But the sounds are in the same high frequency as those produced by killer whales. It's a fast, repetitive clicking noise. Somehow they can modulate the sound as it's emitted.” Partly tongue-in-cheek, the researchers call the sound fast repetitive tick (FRT).

Dill says his primary area of research is predator-prey behaviour, not herring noises, but he says he was thrilled to win the Ig Noble prize and to attend the awards ceremony last month. “It was a tremendous amount of fun.”

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