Flying rhinos upside down under helicopters sees scientists win bizarre award

Flying rhinos upside down under helicopters does the giant beasts no harm…and may help save them.

Researchers who discovered this unlikely fact have been awarded one of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

The lighthearted awards also went to teams that studied bugs in chewing gum stuck to pavements, and how to control cockroaches on submarines.

The spoof prizes couldn’t take place at its usual home of Harvard University in the US because of Covid restrictions. All the fun occurred online instead.

The science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, says its Ig Nobel awards should first make you laugh but then make you think.

And the rhino study, which this year won the award for transportation research, does exactly this. What could seem more daft than hanging 12 rhinos upside down for 10 minutes?

But wildlife veterinarian Robin Radcliffe, from Cornell University, and colleagues did exactly this in Namibia because they wanted to know if the health of the animals might be compromised when slung by their legs beneath a helicopter.

It’s an activity that increasingly has been used in African conservation work to shift rhinos between areas of fragmented habitat.

However, no-one had done the basic investigation to check that the tranquillised animals’ heart and lung function coped with upside-down flying.

The animals coped very well. In fact, there was evidence the rhinos did better in this unusual position than simply lying chest down or on their side.

The winners got a trophy they had to assemble themselves from a PDF print-out and a cash prize in the form of a counterfeit 10 trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote.

Team-member and wildlife doctor Pete Morkel added: “This has really changed rhino translocation, and even more so elephant translocation. Picking these big animals up by their feet – it’s now accepted. The next thing we’ve got to do is some research on other species like buffalo, hippo, and maybe even giraffe.”

Other winners included:

Ecology Prize: Leila Satari and colleagues, for using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteia that reside in wads of discarded chewing gum stuck on pavements in various countries.

Economics Prize: Pavlo Blavatskyy, for discovering that the obesity of a country’s politicians may be a good indicator of that country’s corruption.

Peace Prize: Ethan Beseris and colleagues, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face.

Medicine Prize: Olcay Cem Bulut and colleagues, for demonstrating that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing.