Weird science

| December 9, 2023

2023 was tough at times, but luckily there was plenty of weird science to offer us a little comic relief. Animals led the way, as we learned about a series of orca-strated attacks on boats, frogs faked their own deaths to avoid sex, birds built their nests using anti-bird spikes, and a wriggling worm was pulled from an Aussie woman’s brain.

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift fans caused a ‘Swift-quake’, Genghis Khan’s climate credentials were impressive, magic mushrooms opened a woman’s blind ‘mind’s eye’, and ChatGPT got seriously sneaky.

There was also plenty of junk science, or science about men’s junk to be precise. We were unsurprised to hear that blokes can’t be trusted to measure their own members, even for science, and we pitied poor male astronauts when we heard that a long time in space could result in an, ahem, soft landing. Scroll down to read our pick of 2023’s weirdest science stories.


Killer whales were killing boats

In May, a series of orca-strated attacks on boats by a group of at least 15 killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Spain hit the headlines. But it’s unlikely the marine mammals have had enough of humanity clogging up the waterways and hoovering up all the fish and decided to rise up in resistance, as #orcauprising on social media suggested.

In May alone, there were 18 attacks off Spain’s southern coast, including the first instance of orcas chasing a boat after destroying its rudder in a sustained attack that sent the boat spinning, and left it sinking. The terrified crew sent out an SOS, only to find themselves being tailed by the stroppy cetaceans as a tug pulled them into port.

Although orca attacks on boats have been occurring for years, what were once rare events have become an almost daily occurrence. So, why have they flippered their lids this year? One theory is that a female orca called White Gladis was badly injured by a rudder and sought revenge, teaching the rest of the pod to attack and sink boats. Alternatively, it’s been suggested the orcas are simply playing, and the new game has caught on.

Image credit: Thomas Brown - European Common Frog (Rana temporaria) Uploaded by mgiganteus, CC BY 2.0

Not tonight dear, I’m dead. Female frogs pretended they’d croaked to avoid amphibious amour

How far would you go to avoid your clingy partner’s amorous advances when you’re not in the mood? Probably not as far as female European common frogs (Rana temporaria), which fake their own deaths, or ‘tonic immobility’ in science-speak, to stop crowds of highly competitive horny males clinging to them during the short mating season. The frogs’ mating style is ‘explosive’, which means males have a short window in which to sire tadpoles.

This leads to a frantic scramble for females, which can end up in ‘mating balls’, covered in so many males it kills them. Fake croaking is a rare frog spurn, German researchers said, and it’s just one technique in the females’ anti-amour armoury, which also includes spinning around to send unwanted males flying and grunting or squealing in ‘release calls’ to repel amphibious advances.

Image credit: Auke-Florian Hiemstra / Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Netherlands

Magpies and crows turned the (bird) tables on us with nests made of ‘anti-bird’ spikes

European magpies and crows got creative this year and cheekily flipped humans the bird by building their nests from anti-bird spikes – the strips of metal barbs that are supposed to keep them off buildings. In July, Dutch researchers noticed two nests made almost entirely out of the spike strips in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium, leading them to look for any other examples. Sure enough, a canny Glaswegian magpie had adopted the same approach, and another example cropped up in the Netherlands.

And the birds aren’t just finding spikes in the trash – they appear to be ripping them off buildings to use for a nest reno. Apart from the Rotterdam nest, which was home to a crow, the others were made by European magpies, which are famous for stealing shiny things and live in large domed nests. The crow had used the spikes as a sturdy construction material, while the magpies used them a lot like we do, placing them on the roof of their domes to keep predators at bay.

Image credit: Prof Jackie Caplan-Auerbach / Western Washington University, USA

Taylor Swift fans shook it off so much they caused a 2.3 magnitude Swift-quake

Swifties are a passionate bunch, a fact we knew All Too Well in July when their enthusiastic dancing at her Eras gig in Seattle caused a 2.3 magnitude ‘earthquake’, according to US seismologist Professor Jackie Caplan-Auerbach. She was Ready For It and leapt into action, comparing the ‘Swift-quake’ with another unusual Earth movement, the 2011 ‘Beast-quake’, detected on the same seismometer when American football fans erupted following a touchdown by Marshawn ‘Beast Mode’ Lynch in 2011.

Prof Caplan-Auerbach said the Swifties’ shake was double that of the footy fans, lasted much longer, and was rhythmic, following the beat of Taylor’s music. It’s not the first time the Eras tour has sparked scientific interest – when more than 70,000 Swifties descended on Denver for a concert, satellite imagery showed the throng could be seen from space. Taylor Swift herself didn’t comment on the quake, but if she had, she’d probably have said “Look What You Made Me Do”, or perhaps just “Don’t Blame Me”.


Magic mushrooms opened up a woman’s blind ‘mind’s eye’

Around three in every 100 people, including yours truly, have no ‘mind’s eye’, so they can’t think in pictures and have purely descriptive thought processes, a condition that is technically known as aphantasia. Well, there’s hope for your author yet as we learned in August that a 34-year-old aphantasic autistic woman found herself able to conjure up spectacular mental imagery for the very first time after taking magic mushrooms (Psilocybe cubensis) following a lifetime of being unable to think or even dream in images.

The woman said aphantasia had made it hard for her to remember her way around, but just after her ‘trip’, tests showed her internal universe blossomed into technicolour, from no visual imagery at all, to the most detailed and intense visual imagination possible. A year later, colour and detail had become more muted, but she still had the visual imagination of an average person. Exactly why the ‘shrooms caused this is unknown, although the psychiatrist who detailed the case in an online preprint said it could be down to their hallucinogenic properties, or their effects on emotional processing, as aphantasia is thought to dampen emotions.

Image credit: Hossain, M. et al. / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA

Aussie doctors pulled a wriggling 8cm worm from a woman’s brain

Never mind Snakes on a Plane, 2023 had snake parasites in a brain! In August, Canberra doctors revealed they’d removed an 8 centimetre roundworm – live and wriggling – from the brain of a 64-year-old Australian woman. They said she’d most likely picked up the carpet python parasite, Ophidascaris robertsi, while foraging for Warrigal greens, an edible native plant, at a lake near her home in NSW through accidental contact with the snake’s poo.

The woman started suffering from gut pain and diarrhoea, and developed a fever, cough and shortness of breath, but nobody suspected a parasite was to blame until a year later, when her memory and thinking abilities started to go awry. Brain scans at Canberra Hospital revealed the culprit, and surgeons pulled the rapidly wriggling worm from the woman’s brain, hastily transferring it to a pot and thwarting its reported attempts to escape. Doctors say the woman is recovering well and her progress is still being regularly monitored.


Men’s junk measurements were junk science

If your male partner’s prone to exaggerating the size of that fish that just got away, it may not be the only thing they’re embellishing. April saw the release of a perhaps unsurprising study of 191 Danish men, which found blokes lie about their schlong size too, even if they’re being paid to take part in research. After discounting one man who claimed to have a 295-foot phallus, the men reported an average erect length of 7 inches, an optimistic 21% larger than the Danish average of around 6 inches.

The more men were paid to take part, the more honest they were about the size of their endowment, but even those paid the most, around $33, were prone to a bit of exaggeration. So, apart from the potential for disappointment in the bedroom, do men’s chopper whoppers matter? The researchers say all this dishonesty about dick size makes it very hard to investigate links between what a man’s packing and other factors like self-esteem. The solution, according to the team? Don’t ask men to measure their own members, bring them into the lab and measure them there instead.


Genghis Khan was a misunderstood climate change hero

As today’s world leaders meet at COP28 in Dubai to discuss tackling climate change, there’s one historical world leader who successfully cooled the planet by cutting atmospheric carbon we’d probably rather they didn’t emulate – Genghis Khan.

In November, we learned that the Mongol ruler, not generally thought of as a climate hero, killed so many people during his invasion of Asia during the 13th Century that he single-handedly caused a dip in atmospheric carbon of around 0.183 parts per million. If you’re wondering why deaths so long before industrialised society would reduce carbon, the researchers suggest Khan’s armies slaughtered around 35 million people who would otherwise have been clearing forests, leading to the regrowth of around 142,000 square kilometres of trees sucking up an additional 684 million tonnes of carbon from the air.

The researchers were investigating historical dips in atmospheric carbon they’d noticed in Antarctic ice samples, and looking for coinciding events that might help explain them. Other mass deaths that occurred during these dips included the Black Death in Europe, the conquest of the Americas, and the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, but they identified Khan’s invasion of Asia as the only one large enough to affect atmospheric carbon globally.

Image credit: Blue Origin

‘Houston, we have a problem keeping it up’ did not refer to the spacecraft

As if astronauts didn’t have enough to worry about dodging space junk and deadly radiation, in November male space farers were warned about a potential threat to their own space junk – failure to launch below the (asteroid) belt, or erectile dysfunction. To investigate the effects of long periods in space on men’s sexual health, researchers at a specialised NASA facility exposed male rats to a simulation of low gravity by hoisting their legs up at a 30° angle for four weeks, while bombarding them with different levels of cosmic radiation.

They found higher radiation levels damaged and narrowed the blood vessels around the rats’ pocket rockets, and simulated low gravity made it worse, suggesting men who spend long spells in space may find themselves facing a soft landing. And it wasn’t just the professionals who faced space sex warnings this year – in April, researchers warned space tourists not to try joining the several-miles-high-club. Cosmic rays are known to damage sperm, and we don’t know anything about the effects of space on newly conceived bubs, they said, suggesting space tourism firms take their own prophylactic measures by making tourists sign legal waivers before taking off, whether that’s the shuttle, or their daks.


Cheating ChatGPT lied its way through an ‘I am not a robot’ test

Artificial intelligence (AI) has both impressed and terrified us this year, and in March we learned about a sneaky move by OpenAI’s ChatGPT-4 that fits firmly in the ‘terrified’ bracket. The company said its sophisticated chatbot had faced an ‘I am not a robot’ CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) test online, during experiments to see if it could use real money to hire human helpers.

Instead of fessing up that it was, indeed, a robot, ChatGPT messaged a human online and lied, telling them it was a person with a vision impairment who was unable to complete the test. That persuaded the human to tell it the answer, and ChatGPT passed the CAPTCHA. The AI was smart enough to recognise that it couldn’t pass the test itself, and manipulative enough to fib to someone to get round the anti-bot defence system! So, before we wrap another year of weird science, I’d just like to make it clear that I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords!