Penguin Poo Illustration: investigation of biophysics or fecal humor?

An interesting scientific illustration has been gaining some notoriety on the internet lately (nine years after it’s publication, I might add!). As I’m always singing the praises of what good scientific illustration can bring to science communication and public education, I thought I’d give this one some attention, too.

Now, don’t scoff at the subject of the investigation. What may very well sound like a silly study to you – investigating the pressure, viscosity and trajectory required to achieve the spectacular poop-shoot of penguins – may in fact be very important to the penguins themselves. (Never seen a penguin poop? Google it.) While even I may be more interested in the behavioral ecology of why penguins have evolved to shoot their poo quite so far (to avoid leaving the next exposed to predators, per chance? Or, to avoid soiling their feathers and thus spending energy cleaning them?), researchers Victor Meyer-Rochow and Jozsef Gal took a more experimental physics approach to the subject in their 2003 paper Pressures produced when penguins pooh – calculations on avian defaecation. published in the journal Polar Biology (click here for access to the full paper). Figure 1, as you can see below, really isn’t a great work of illustration necessarily, but it’s just gawktastic enough to be generating quasi-science stories on the internet for nearly a decade after it’s publication (it’s open access, by the way).

Fig. 1 Position of model penguin during defaecation and physical parameters used to calculate rectal pressure necessary to expel faecal material over a distance of 40 cm. From: Meyer-Rochow, V., & Gal, J. (2003). Pressures produced when penguins pooh – calculations on avian defaecation. Polar Biology, 27 (1), 56-58 DOI: 10.1007/s00300-003-0563-3

There was actually quite a fair bit of painstaking mathematical projections in the paper, estimating values for the viscosity fo the “semi-liquid” fluid, and consideration of, “non-Newtonian mechanisms of mucus participation, non-homogenous media inside the intestine, a certain amount of gut-wall elasticity, specific reflux zones, etc.” Indeed, many biomechanical and physiological cogitation was involved. What I think I find even more fascinating, however, is Figure 2, in which the authors present data to support their finding that, “the viscosity of penguin faeces lies between glycol and olive oil.” There’s even a handy comparison on the x-axes with auto tyre pressure:

Fig. 2 Rectal pressure (in Pa along left and mmHg along right ordinate) in relation to viscosity (abscissa) and three cloacal apertures (4.2 mm=rockhopper, 8.0 mm=Ade´lie, and 13.8 mm=gentoo penguin). The viscosity of penguin faeces lies between glycol and olive oil. For comparison, known viscosities of other substances are given along the abscissa. From: Meyer-Rochow, V., & Gal, J. (2003). Pressures produced when penguins pooh – calculations on avian defaecation. Polar Biology, 27 (1), 56-58 DOI: 10.1007/s00300-003-0563-3

Whether you can see it for the pure biophysics, or just needed something to lighten up your Wednesday, Meyer-Rochow and Gal have certainly illustrated the power of scientific illustration to capture our attention and posit on the oft neglected things in the study of life on Earth.

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And…I’m back from a quick bout of post-ESA 2011 exhaustion (a few more posts on the way from ESA by the way)!

Loved Julie Palmer’s quick post last month on Bioephemera about a recent NYT article featuring graduate programs. The commissioned art for the piece strikes me as a more “serious”, NYTimes-y version of Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics (which was also featured recently in the NYT). I don’t have to tell any of you graduate students out there how great Cham’s uncanny depictions of your life actually are. According to the NYT article, he started writing the comics as “therapy” for coping with grad school. Even with no formal training in the arts, he’s made a career out of his creativity, and I think we grad students are all in his debt for bringing a little humor to our strife.

On the one hand, cartoons have the potential to engage us in biology without worrying too much about being ‘serious’. Exhibit A, Natalie Dee:

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Cartoons also have the potential to bring awareness to how science can be perceived (or be ignored) in our culture. Again, Natalie Dee:

It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/

"It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs" by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/

They can also serve as commentary on the process by which scientific research is sometimes (but not always!) conducted, as Cham often does with PhD comics:

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997 Available from www.phdcomics.com

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997. Available from http://www.phdcomics.com

If you didn’t know PhD comics movie is coming soon, hold on to your freakin’ hats, because it’s almost here!

Comics can also help describe some of the more endearing qualities of we who practice science (Randall Munroe of xkcd.com is very good at this):

Finally, no post on biology humor would be complete without a nod to Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Out of greatest respect for my favorite comic of all time, I can’t post one here. Here’s why. I’m sure many of you out there know of some great bio-comics! Let me know about them with a comment!