I am becoming more aware of and interested in how science is perceived in the media, and how scientists often do themselves no favours when dealing with the media.
Today, I noticed a news article relating to some research on the noises koalas make. It was reported in a few news sites, and probably made the print media at least in Queensland. Apparently koalas make the same amount of noise as a cow. Koalas do make a really weird grunting sound, and anyone who has heard one would probably agree that the sound can carry over quite a distance. What astounds me, however, is that the researchers involved have not really communicated very well their results. It could just be bad journalism, but I got the feeling that this really isn’t news. Especially to anyone who has hung around in the country for a little while and heard the koalas.
This is what I got as the main points from the news article/interview: The noise is produced by the unusually deeply-placed larynx. OK. Males that are larger can make more noise and hopefully attract more females. OK again, that happens for most species that display in some way. Larger males produce more offspring. Again, I have no problem with this. However, koalas are not going to get bigger through genetic selection. Hang on, has this gone off-track? But koalas shouldn’t be too big, as they’ll get too hot in the tropics. Waaay off track. Finally, I quote, “So even though larger males might produce more young under given circumstances or even during our study, there might be periods where being larger is not necessarily an advantage.” I’m now lost. Weren’t we talking about how a deep-placed larynx might increase likelihood of attracting a mate via some glorious singing?
Actually, the journal article that spawned this tabloid-style news attention makes no explicit mention of attracting mates for the purposes of breeding ever-larger superkoalas. The research was conducted on the length of larynx and the associated resonance of bellows. They found that while larger koalas had deeper resonance, smaller koalas also with a deeply placed larynx could manage to sound a bit larger than they actually were. They speculated that selection pressure for a lower larynx to maximise noise and make the impression of larger body size has led to the unusual placement of the larynx in koalas. And that communication serves more purposes than only attracting mates.
Perhaps ‘Communication for the Media’ should be a compulsory coursework unit for postgrad students. And applied to established academics who should know better than to say silly things. Soundbites aren’t useful if they’re incorrect.