Monday, November 16, 2015

Scientific Humor and the Woofen Poof

[UPDATE: Not to be confused with the Yale a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs.]

Have you ever come across something in the scientific literature so hilariously bizarre that you have no idea 1) how or why it came into being in the first place, and 2) why you are not hearing about it until now? Rich recently found and purchased a paper of just such hilarity, and it tickled my humerus so much that I had to share.

Please allow me to introduce (or, if you are already acquainted with the plucky fellow, reintroduce) the bird Eoörnis pterovelox gobiensis, also known as the Woofen-Poof.

Picture of a Woofen-Poof resting on a rocky outcrop in the Gobi Desert. From the 1928 Fotheringham monograph.
I can hear you loudly exclaiming "Oh come on! There is no way that's a real bird! There's no way that's an actual paper!" You would be both correct and incorrect: no valid taxon carries the name, but the papers do exist. Take a moment to wipe the snorted beverage off of your screen, and I'll present a summary and commentary of the Woofen-Poof, with tongue firmly in cheek. Don't worry - I'll make sure to distinguish fact from fiction in my summary.

FACT: If you hear me giggling each time you read Woofen-Poof, it's because I am.

The Woofen-Poof

FACT: The Woofen-Poof first made its scientific appearance in 1930, in Volume 5, Issue 1 of the Quarterly Review of Biology under "New Biological Books". Authors weren't stated, but it was presumably done by Lester B. Sharp and Cuthbert Fraser (see below: The People). Presented was a review of an obscure monograph on Eoörnis pterovelox gobiensis as written by Augustus C. Fotheringham. It was stated in the 1930 review that "[c]opies may be obtained from Dr. Lester W. Sharp, N. Y. State College of Agriculture, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N. Y.)", and that the Fotheringham article is a first edition of 500 copies. No date of publication was given in the review, but the monograph made available by Sharp has the publication date of 1928.

Cover of the Woofen-Poof monograph.
In this classic work, Eoörnis was documented by an expedition to the Gobi desert led by Brigadier-General Sir Cecil Wemyss-Cholmondeley, for which A. C. Fotheringham was scientific director. The following are some select photos from the field as presented in the monograph, and commentary summarized from the monograph and the 1930 review. These are not all of the images from this fantastic monograph, but they represent my favorites.

Scanned from the 1928 monograph.
First, the Woofen-Poof is figured (left) perching on a branch of Ginko biloba. Right is featured the nest of the Woofen-Poof. Note the majestic metallic sheen on of the Woofen-Poof, provided by the large oily glands the Woofen-Poof uses to groom itself. Woofen-Poofs are small birds, approximately 17 cm long from beak tip to tail tip, and have a wingspan of only 6 cm. It is a brown bird, except during mating season, when the female develops black speckles on the breast, body and tail feathers. The wings are in constant use despite their small size, and lack the proper joints to be folded when not in use.

The nest (right) is figured in the monograph, and describes the Woofen-Poof as a ground nesting bird that conceals its eggs among other similarly-sized spheroids. The nesting and breeding strategy are startling, as summarized in the 1930 review:
Quote from the 1930 review. Dr. Sharp's research focus in cytology is evident in several places in the Woofen-Poof monograph: there is an entire section detailing cytological studies of Eoornis.Sorry, male Woofen-Poofs: fertilization isn't required when you reproduce via parthenogenesis.

Ichnology also plays a role in interpreting the nesting biology of the Woofen-Poof. The Woofen-Poof had to stealthily hide its eggs among decoys because, according to the reptile Lepidosaurus obscurus (below), Woofen-Poof eggs are delicious.

FACT: Figure 18 almost killed me. I was staring, staring, staring...and then it came to me: the entire white object is the "fossil"! I believe someone (looking at you, Sharp and Fraser!) was having a little laugh at how fossils are interpreted. They may have also been poking fun at many of the pseudofossils that scientists are asked to identify. I've seen my fair share of "skulls" that are really just round rocks with a couple of "eye sockets". Figure 18 is a textbook case of how people see fossils using pareidolia.

As a completely humorous aside, I must respectfully offer an alternative hypothesis to that of the Lepidosaurus nest-robbing interpretation. The skeletal reconstructions of the Woofen-Poof do not show the fusion one would expect to see in the legs and ankles of a bird that never flexes them. It is possible that when the Wemyss-Cholmondeley Expedition encountered the Woofen-Poofs in the wild, that the hopping they observed was a behavioral reaction to intruders, much like the Killdeer injury display. All published images of Woofen-Poofs show a flat foot posture - they appear to retain this foot posture even in flight (see figures 23 and 24 below). If we look at the skeleton of the Woofen-Poof, shown in figure 20 of the monograph (below), the foot structure, toe proportions, and toe orientation are a close fit to the footprints shown around the Woofen-Poof nest.

Woofen-Poof skeleton. How this bird was supposed to hop in this pose without bill-planting into the sand is a mystery. 1928 monograph.

Real Ichnology: While Fotheringham interprets these tracks to be from a quadrupedal animal, he does not present information to support this idea. There is little difference between purported front limb prints and hind limb prints. Quadrupedal animals generally have a size and shape difference between the hand and the foot, even if it's a small difference. All of the prints around the Woofen-Poof nest are uniform in size and shape. Check out the spacing of the footprints. Birds have a short step length (called pace in ichnology) compared to the length of their footprints. [End real ichnology]

My hypothesis is that these are footprints of the Woofen-Poof, made as the nesting Poof walked up to the nest. Alternatively, Woofen-Poofs may have been brood parasites, with one Woofen-Poof laying her eggs in the nest of another unsuspecting nesting Woofen-Poof. This would give the parasitic Woofen-Poof all of the benefits of having reproduced, with none of the energy drain of raising the little baby Poofs. Keep this "hypothesis" in mind for the end of this post - we have news (teehee)!

While Woofen-Poofs (Woofen-Pi?) may look stoic and immobile, they are described as rapid and energetic fliers (they would have to be, with feet and legs like that). The 1930 review reports speeds of up to 600 km per hour! Figures 23 and 24 from the monograph demonstrate that photography of the Woofen-Poof was so difficult the expedition leader had to invent a new camera shutter.

Figures 23 and 24, from the 1928 monograph.

Photographing the Woofen-Poof is a perilous exercise. The expedition crew were often assaulted by agitated Woofen-Poofs, which would fly at them at full speed and attempt to impale the crew on their Woofen-Poofy beaks.

DUCK! I mean, POOF! An angry Woofen-Poof, from the 1928 monograph.

The Woofen-Poof has apparently existed at least since the Mesozoic, as proffered by fossil evidence of its food, as seen in figures 14 and 15 of the monograph.

FACT: I can already hear paleontologists chuckling at the caption for Figure 15 (right). The worms, Palaeolumbricus dubius, are really ammonites. The "worm" is also referred to in the 1930 review as the "now extinct Cro Magnon worm".

The Woofen-Poof is reported to appear as art on the walls of Cro Magnon cave, in an amulet of King Tutankhamen, and mentioned by both the Roman historian Eutropius and Marco Polo. No worries, archaeologists: there is something for everyone in the Woofen-Poof literature!

Fotheringham spends a great deal of time discussing the fascinating evolutionary history of the Woofen-Poof. The Woofen-Poof, being unique as all heck, is the sole representative of its genus (Eoornis) and its class, the Pterovelocidae.

FACT: Remember the taxonomic ranks from high school? "-idae" endings are for family-level groupings, while "-ia" endings are for class- level groupings. Fotheringham really should have called this group the family Pterovelocidae, or the class Pterovelocia.

Fotheringham discuss several anatomy and behavior traits that link the Woofen-Poof to Australia. The small wings and historical diet of "Cro Magnon worms" of the Woofen-Poof suggest anatomy and behavioral links to the kiwi. The monograph also states that the Woofen-Poof shares a beak pouch with the pelican. Since all occur(ed) in Australia, Australia is the logical evolutionary birth-place of the Woofen-Poof.

Fotheringham completely rejects the evolution scenario presented by his colleague, Adolf Weilder-Goesser. The scenario is this: 1. Woofen-Poofs have retractable eye stalks, 2. Snails and other molluscs have retractable eye stalks, 3. Woofen-Poofs are birds. Naturally that brings us to 4. Birds and molluscs have an evolutionary relationship. Fotheringham rejects this idea based on the different speeds at which these animals travel: snails are slow, while Woofen-Poofs are fast.

Now we reach the point where Fotheringham discusses why the Woofen-Poof has proven to be the most significant discovery in paleontology history. When first discovered, Pterodactylus and Archaeopteryx were cited to be "missing links" between reptiles and birds. These two fossils were important fossil missing links, but what if a living missing link could be discovered? TA-DA! The Woofen-Poof shares many features with pterosaurs, particularly Pterodactylus avioancestricus, this it firmly cements the bird + Woofen-poof + pterosaur link.
Pterodactylus avioancestricus. Figure 34 from the 1928 monograph. According to the monograph, the paper describing this great new pterosaur was in progress in 1928. I guess we're still waiting.

What is the future of the Woofen-Poof? Fotheringham details bleak information on the unique neurological condition of Woofen-Poofs: a priori reasoning (reasoning that stems from theoretical knowledge) and a posteriori reasoning (reasoning that stems from observations and experiences) are perfectly balanced. In other words, Woofen-Poofs can easily be rendered indecisive, even to their own detriment. In what had to be a heart-wrenching experiment to perform, a Woofen-Poof was placed an equal distance between two piles of food. Its neurological condition rendered the poor Woofen-Poof unable to choose one pile of food over the other, resulting in its eventual death by starvation seven days later. Even if the Woofen-Poof can overcome its quirky indecisiveness, it may die between the ages of seven and 35 years due to deterioration of the lumbar ganglion. Poor, poor Woofen-Poof.
An unfortunate Woofen-Poof, rendered indecisive (and dead) after seven days between two piles of food. I challenge you not to be moved to tears by this pitiful scene. Figures 29 from the 1928 monograph.

Who are these interesting cast of characters?

1. The People

Augustus C. Fotheringham

A Google search of that name comes up with all things Woofen-Poof. It also comes up with information on the botanist Lester W. Sharp, pioneer in cytogenetics. Given that the images show the Woofen-Poof is quite obviously a metallic model (pick your favorite - they're all ridiculous), there can be little doubt that Sharp and Fraser knew they were not fooling anyone in the scientific community: this was a science joke, and an obvious one at that. That didn't stop Sharp from having what looks like a tremendous amount of fun with the Woofen-Poof. The monograph contains many references to the cytogenetics of the Poof, and has a dry chortle at not only cytogenetics, but archaeology, paleontology, biology, psychology, and several other science specializations. That didn't stop people from using the Woofen-Poof as serious science (see below: The Hoaxed).

Brigadier-General Sir Cecil Wemyss-Cholmondeley, and the Wemyss-Cholmondeley Expedition

I don't think it will come as a surprise to learn that there was no person who bore that exact moniker. The name appears to contain parts of names of several real British generals and brigadiers, notably General Sir Henry Colville Barclay Wemyss (1891–1959), and Major-General Allan Cholmondeley Arnold (1893–1962). Alas, this means there is no Wemyss-Cholmondeley camera shutter, and no upcoming monograph on the fictional Pterodactylus aviancestricus.

2. The Hoaxed

Yes, someone took the Woofen-Poof seriously. A cringe-worthy article in Eugenics Review by Anthony Ludovici from 1933 cited examples of incest or consanguineous breeding in nature to support the "purification of [human] stock". One of these examples is our poor Woofen-Poof. I had hoped the article was satire, but that hope was dashed when I read the Wikipedia page for the author. Read the titles of his works ye mighty, and despair. I'll leave this here for anyone who wants to use it.

Eternal gratitude to Mammals Suck...Milk! for posting this gif. My quality of life has improved tremendously since.
Clearly the Woofen-Poof had made the academic rounds by 1933. I'm assuming that Ludovici didn't bother to contact Sharp to obtain a copy of the monograph, or else he would have realized the Woofen-Poof was not the best example to lend credence to his work. The alternative is that even if he did know, he may not have cared. Cherry-picking data, poorly researching data, and misrepresenting data to "prove" a pseudoscientific idea (and sometimes a scientific idea) isn't new. It would be simple to just laugh at the old-time racist (and elitist, and misogynist, and ableist...he was committed to being an unsavory character), but it's difficult to laugh when these beliefs are alive and squirming today.

Our New "Discovery" (a.k.a. Having more fun with the Woofen-Poof)

There have been no reports of the Woofen-Poof since its announcement in 1930. At the time of its description, the Woofen-Poof was thought to be restricted to the Gobi Desert. Fortheringham suspected the Woofen-Poof had a larger range than described in the 1928 monograph, and proposed Australia as the next logical place to search for this elusive bird.  However, in a groundbreaking discovery of the utmost scientific importance, we report the possible presence of the Woofen-Poof in northeast British Columbia. Allow me to present my evidence, Woofen-Poof style.

Yup. Totally 100% legit Woofen-Poof tracks in BC. Hey, why are you laughing?
This picture was taken today. There are three tracks in a single trackway of a small, three-toed trackmaker. These tracks most closely match bird footprints, but they do not match any known bird from the Peace Region. They are remarkably similar in shape to the prints that I interpret at Woofen-Poof prints. These prints do not display the reported hopping behavior, as these prints were made by a bird that was not under stress. Also, ammonites (or Cro Magnon worms of Fortheringham, 1928) the ancestral food of the Woofen-Poof, were present in BC during the Mesozoic. While this trackway does not 100% confirm the presence of a northern North American population of the elusive Woofen-Poof, we'll be keeping our eyes out for more evidence. Stay tuned!

Now to be serious.

Why am I so amused by this paper? It shows that scientists have a sense of humor, and have had a sense of humor for a long time. Science usually presents itself as serious business, and we spend a lot of time writing serious scientific papers. Our research has to be professional - we have to get the facts out so they are clear, because other people make real decisions that impact real people based on these studies. There's not a lot of room in these papers for puns, groaners, and Muppet Show antics. Sometimes I think non-scientists (and even a few scientists) forget that we're also human beings, and we're human beings who appreciate humor.

Social media is a great place to check out where scientists regularly poke fun at themselves and their craft. Hashtags such as #scienceamoviequote come up regularly. #scienceamoviequote quote falls under the category of the inside joke: scientists are making fun of their terminology, statistical tests, paper writing (and rewriting, and rewriting...), grant writing, committee posts, exam grading, and all of the other trials of academic life. These are jokes by scientists, for scientists. Since we all have had to deal with these issues, we poke fun at them with our colleagues to break down that feeling of isolation and frustration that inevitably results from working in a demanding field. The Woofen-Poof is an elaborate inside joke. A non-scientist has a very good chance of either not understanding that it is a joke, and/or taking it as a serious piece of scientific literature.

We also find the humor in events which have a broad appeal. Collecting our data can put in silly and embarrassing situations, as demonstrated by #fieldworkfail. Everyone can relate to getting a vehicle stuck, losing that important bit of equipment, or have an animal cause mischief. We also realize that some of the subjects we study may sound giggle-worthy (like genitals). Laugh away (we do), but mating and genitals are just as important to document as any other parts of an organism's behavior and anatomy, as we saw in #junkoff.

We also encounter those who abuse joking in science. There are still too many people in every discipline who express their biases towards junior and/or underrepresented groups, and then try to excuse their words as "just a joke" when they are later told they were being unprofessional (see Dr. Kate Clancy's "Jokes that Don't Work" and Hilda Bastian's "Just Joking?"). An easy rule: if the "joke" turns an underrepresented group and the issues they face into a punchline, it's not a joke. Treat people the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position.

Humor is a great outreach tool when used properly. A non-scientist may not completely understand why I need to (or would want to) spend a lot of time trekking through the wilderness looking for bird footprints, but they can appreciate how funny it is if I sink up to my waist in muck, or have my backpack attacked by my study subject.
This juvenile White-tailed Ptarmigan, a tiny alpine game bird, cheekily strutted up to my back pack and hissed at it. Photo by L. G. Buckley.
Humor can be a bridge connecting the general public with the scientific world. I think the people who are the most intimidated by the idea of science are those who don't know (and may not care) exactly what it takes to do the science. It's easy to reject something you can't feel any connection to. Science isn't a scary secret conspiracy, and the people who do science don't sit up nights thinking of ways to pull one over on the unsuspecting public. We do work, and that work is finding out as much about the natural world as we can so that we can better understand our place in it. That work, like any other work, has moments of joy and frustration, satisfaction and discouragement, hazard and humor. Scientists experience all of these moments as people, not papers. The serious paper is only one small part of the entire experience of conducting a scientific study. The more we talk about how we get to the final results, the less scary the process seems.

Has anyone else seen the elusive Woofen Poof?


Brief notices. 1930. New biological books. Quarterly Review of Biology 5(1):98-131. Check out pages 112-113 of this article.

A. C. Fotheringham. 1928. Eoörnis pterovelox gobiensis. The Buighleigh Press, London, 1-34.