Ig-Nobel Prize Winners – Transportation

The Ig-nobel prize for transportation was not handed out for the type of research you would expect.

I, for one, immediately pictured a team of enthusiastically beaming train enthusiasts to pop up on screen to accept the award.

I could not have been more wrong…

Instead, a team of scientists working in one of the most biodiverse regions in Africa with one of the most spectacular species of animal connected to accept their well-deserved recognition.

Yet again, the Ig-nobel prizes proved their worth in showcasing the coolest and most fascinating scientific research – breaking stereotypes and revealing the modern inter-disciplinary approach needed to present real-word scientific solutions.

A Quick Reminder – What are the Ig-Nobel Prizes?   

If you have read any of our previous articles on the subject of the Ig-Nobel Prizes – you can skip this section! If, however, you have never heard of this award ceremony then keep reading for a quick introduction.  

The Ig Nobel Prizes were set up to honour those people and projects that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are handed out for the weird, the imaginative, the unusual – anything that can spur people’s interest in science, medicine or technology.  

Usually, the ceremony is held every September as a gala-type event in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Unfortunately, in a Covid blighted world this was not possible so the entire event was streamed online.   

It is possible to watch the full event for free by clicking here.  

Previous ceremonies have had the prizes presented to recipients by Nobel Laureates in front of the massed 1100 spectators. Thousands more watch along online.   

The Transportation Prize  

The team that undertook the award-winning research were comprised of members from all over the globe, a collaborative effort from scientists from Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Brazil, the UK, and the USA. The winners (Robin Radcliffe, Mark Jago, Peter Morkel, Estelle Morkel, Pierre du Preez, Piet Beytell, Birgit Kotting, Bakker Manuel, Jan Hendrik du Preez, Michele Miller, Julia Felippe, Stephen Parry, and Robin Gleed) accepted their prize in the online ceremony at the time stamp of 1:07:23

The prize was handed over for research that scientifically proves it is actually slightly safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside-down. Nobel laureate Rich Roberts who the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine presented the award.

The Background to The Transportation Prize

The majority of this section is based upon the introduction of the paper (with references to other previous studies from other scientists).

As many are all aware, poaching is a serious threat to wild Black rhinoceros in Southern Africa. This is not the only pressure that the species faces as their range has been increasingly diminished by agricultural encroachment. This has the added negative effect of isolating herds from one another, limiting breeding and promoting genetic homogeneity.

NGOs and governments have now begun to step in to manage remaining populations, capturing and translocating individuals as part of their active management strategy. There are practical issues posed by the rugged terrain and remoteness of populations – making translocation by truck an unrealistic option.

The solution to this? Airlifting immobilised individuals by suspending them from their feet under a helicopter. It is known that the opioids used have negative effects for health, and the anaesthesia used to immobilise the rhinos will affect posture – changing pulmonary and cardiovascular function. There is, however, no available physiological data available to assess the risks for airlifted rhinoceroses suspended by their feet.

To fill this knowledge gap, the first aim of the award-winning study was to collect measurements on black rhinoceroses suspended by their feet from a crane to essentially mimic the position that they would be in while being transported by helicopter. The scientists hypothesised that immobilised black rhinoceroses would have higher arterial carbon dioxide pressure (PaCO2) and lower PaO2 than they would do otherwise lying on the ground in lateral recumbency. The second aim for the study was to ascertain whether black rhinoceroses immobilised with etorphine and azaperone showed a similar hypermetabolic state to white rhinoceroses immobilised in the same fashion. This led to the second hypothesis, that immobilised black rhinoceroses would have a greater VCO2 than that predicted allometrically (essentially predications based on the relationship of body size to shape, anatomy, physiology, and animal behaviour).

A Brief Explanation of the Methodology

For the purpose of this article the findings of the research paper have been simplified, with parts omitted. If you would like to read the full paper (which we recommend you do), you can find a link here: https://bioone.org/journals/journal-of-wildlife-diseases/volume-57/issue-2/2019-08-202/THE-PULMONARY-AND-METABOLIC-EFFECTS-OF-SUSPENSION-BY-THE-FEET/10.7589/2019-08-202.short

For the study, 39 rhinoceroses were immobilised in Waterburg National Park, of which there were conservation management reasons to do so – so animals were not needlessly anaesthetised. The rhinos in the research ranged from 4-25 years old, with the location of animals being integral to the choice to include them in the study – with a crucial need to be accessible by the truck with a crane attachment.

The twelve sub-adult rhinos were then immobilised by a remote intramuscular injection by darting – shot from a helicopter. Etorphine hydrochloride, azaperone, and hyaluronidase were used to achieve immobilisation. 

Observations were then made in two different phases on each rhino – lateral recumbency on the ground, and suspended by all four feet. Care was taken to keep the head clear of the ground by using crane hoist – simulating the aerial suspension by helicopter. In some cases, rhinoceroses were needed to be manipulated into lateral recumbency where necessary.

Measurements were taken at two key intervals – once after the animals had been left in the first assigned posture for approximately ten minutes after investigating team reached the rhino, and once again after animals had been in the second assigned posture for approximately ten minutes. Other potentially important variables were captured (like temperature and atmospheric pressure) at the capture site too.

Figure 1 – Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) carried by helicopter and being translocated by its feet, Namibia

The Findings

For the purpose of this article the findings of the research paper have been simplified, with parts omitted. If you would like to read the full paper (which we recommend you do), you can find a link here: https://bioone.org/journals/journal-of-wildlife-diseases/volume-57/issue-2/2019-08-202/THE-PULMONARY-AND-METABOLIC-EFFECTS-OF-SUSPENSION-BY-THE-FEET/10.7589/2019-08-202.short

The findings of the study allowed the researchers to discount their initial hypotheses and revealed that suspending immobilised black rhinoceros by their feet for 10 minutes did not in fact impair pulmonary function more than lateral recumbency does. It is important to note that finding the grounds to reject hypotheses is just as important as finding supporting evidence.

All of the black rhinoceroses that were immobilised for the study were severely hypoxemic and hypercapnic in both lateral recumbency and by helicopter suspension. The occurrence and severity of these two conditions generally concur with observations that others have made in free-ranging black rhinoceroses that were captured using potent opioids.

Interestingly, this study demonstrated that for the suspended rhinoceroses there was an association with slightly better respiratory gas exchange. Although numerically small, statistical manipulation revealed the figure was statistically significant – with greater mean PaO2 and lower mean PaCO2­. Improvements in arterial blood gases are again slight for those suspended by their feet (increment in mean PaO2 and decrement in PaCO2) but this may hold both biological and clinical significance for animals like black rhinoceroses that are already severely hypoxemic and hypercapnic.

This is just a small snippet of the results from the published research paper, with the full methodology, results, and discussion going into much greater detail as well as contextualising the findings.

Figure 2 – Observation of the hanging posture of Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) by simulating aerial suspension under a helicopter with a crane on a flatbed truck, Namibia