Three from New Scientist

From the 8/30/14 New Scientist, three stories: one with a piece of technical terminology I hadn’t heard before, and two perfectly straightforward stories (on the mapping of Antarctic Ocean life and on the mating customs of the giraffe weevil) with some language play that’s characteristic of much science writing.

The thanatomicrobiome. Annals of lexical innovation, from the article “Death: the great bacterial takeover”:

Surprisingly, what happens [to the body’s microbes after death] has largely been a mystery. Now researchers have made the first study of the thanatomicrobiome – the army of gut microbes that take over your internal organs once you are dead.

A technical term, combining the thanato ‘death’ formative with microbiome (from Wikipedia on human microbiome: ‘the aggregate of microorganisms, a microbiome that resides on the surface and in deep layers of skin, in the saliva and oral mucosa, in the conjunctiva, and in the gastrointestinal tracts’).

Mapping ocean life. The beginning of the article “Antarctic Ocean life gets mapped”:

Whale what’s going on here then? Climate change’s dramatic effects on the Southern Ocean just got easier to track, thanks to a comprehensive biodiversity map of the region.

Ouch. A pun on whale / well, alluding to the whales in the Antarctic Ocean and to a comic formula conventionally associated with British policemen when they come across some situation:

Well / Right / Now / Ello, what’s going on here then?

(further variants for the initial element: well then, now then‘ello ‘ello ‘ello, etc.).

The formula is most famously associated with a Monty Python sketch about Police Constable Pan-Am:

Policeman: (Graham Chapman) Right. Right! RIGHT! Now then! Now then! Your turn.

Chemist: (Michael Palin) Aren’t you going to say ‘What’s all this then?’?

Policeman: Oh! Right, what’s all this, then?

The sketch clearly alludes to a pre-existing formula, but I haven’t been able to track down its earlier history.

Giraffe weevils. And then the article “Sometimes it pays to be the lesser of two weevils”, where the language play comes in the title: weevil / evil, based on the phrasal idiom lesser of two evils ‘the less bad thing of two bad things’:

The latest sex tapes confirm it: size doesn’t matter – so long as you’re sneaky. Smaller male New Zealand giraffe weevils use their diminutiveness to their advantage to mate with females under the noses of their larger peers.

The bizarre-looking male giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) uses its enormous snout, or rostrum – which can make up over half its body length – to joust with other males and win mating rights. But some males have snouts just one-sixth the length of those of their most well-endowed peers.

Small males don’t let this disadvantage stand in their way, though, says Christina Painting at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She monitored the private lives of 79 weevils and found that small males with short snouts instead use sly sexual behaviour to mate. Some would hide under a female while she copulated with a large male, ready to jump in should the larger male get distracted by a rival. Others would slowly slide unnoticed between a copulating pair and take over from the larger male.

Using these tactics, small males were as sexually successful as larger ones, mating just as often (Behavioral Ecology, DOI: 10.1093/beheco/aru140).

On size in humans, see my 1/19/11 XBlog posting “In praise of little guys” (on AZBlogX because it has full frontal nudity), which celebrates compact men (small in overall body size) and men with smaller than average penises. By the way, I don’t know of any research on penis size and sexual success in humans (as opposed to snout size and sexual success in giraffe weevils).

3 Responses to “Three from New Scientist”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Thanatomicrobiome – a word worthy of H.P. Lovecraft. Reminds me of a chronic skin disorder with the ponderous name of necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum. “I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.” (Yeats, “Byzantium”)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I don’t know its age or origin, but I can give a further clue about the English policeman’s formula: In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1920s or so), there’s a scene in which two teenage brothers get into a night-time altercation in their bedroom, which is interrupted by the arrival of their adult elder brother (who is a policeman) saying “Nah then, wot’s all this?”

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    I also wanted to say that I just love the fact that there’s a creature called a giraffe weevil.

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