Ig Nobel Prize goes to Spanish study on how sexual activity of anchovies affects ocean water mixing

‘This is the sexiest investigation of my entire life,’ says lead investigator Beatriz Mouriño-Carballido, who is delighted with the award

Illustration created by the research team, showing the eddies created by the anchovies.
Illustration created by the research team, showing the eddies created by the anchovies.REMEDIOS

Counting nose hairs in cadavers, repurposing dead spiders and explaining why scientists lick rocks are among the winning achievements in this year’s Ig Nobels, the prize for humorous scientific feats. The winners were announced Thursday in the 33rd annual prize ceremony. Since the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony has been a prerecorded online event instead of the past live editions held at at Harvard University. Ten spoof prizes were awarded to the teams and individuals from around the globe in various categories.

This year, Spain has once again joined the list of winners with a study on how ocean water mixing is affected by the sexual activity of anchovies. “This is the sexiest investigation of my entire life,” said Beatriz Mouriño-Carballido, 48, the head scientist in the group that conducted the research, which was published by a subsidiary of Nature. The discovery provides answers to the influence of living beings on the movements of the sea, an eternal question in oceanography.

For the original study, Mouriño-Carballido insisted on following a fisherman’s strategy and anchoring for three weeks waiting for results. “We were looking for how environmental conditions affect the growth of microscopic algae, some of which produce toxins,” she recalls. “At night we saw very high levels of turbulence and mixing, at more or less the same time and in the same interval. The echo sounders showed that there was a lot of fish activity. It seemed like a feast of horse mackerel, squid, seagulls...”

Beatriz Mouriño-Carballido.
Beatriz Mouriño-Carballido.

After first misidentifying the origin of the data, the team analyzed whether the echo sounder records were compatible with the sexual activity of anchovies. And they were. The data was confirmed with biological remains collected with nets, where there were many eggs produced by these fish.

Besides the humorous aspect of the study, research on ocean water mixing is a serious affair and the phenomenon is usually attributed to winds and tides. “The latest research seems to rule out the relevance of the turbulence associated with the movement of living organisms, which form very small eddies. We managed to demonstrate that organisms, in this case anchovies experiencing a sexual frenzy, can generate effective turbulence to mix waters with different properties.”

The Ig Nobels are awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research. The winners receive a cutout and a 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollar bill, a currency that disappeared in 2015 and whose value today would be less than 30 cents.

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