Nobel Prize for Newcastle University scientists

SCIENTISTS in the North East who found that cows with names produce more milk last night creamed off an international award that highlights bizarre but thought-provoking research.

SCIENTISTS in the North East who found that cows with names produce more milk last night creamed off an international award that highlights bizarre but thought-provoking research.

Dr Catherine Douglas and Dr Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University won the Ig Nobel Prize for Veterinary Medicine in the United States for their work which looked at reducing stress levels in dairy cattle.

The Journal reported earlier this year how their study found that giving a cow a name and treating her as an individual can increase a farmer’s annual milk yield by almost 500 pints.

Led by Dr Douglas, the research found that just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if they are given more one-to-one attention.

The Ig Nobel Prizes, now in their 19th year, honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. Project supervisor Dr Rowlinson, from Newcastle’s School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, was at Harvard University in the United States to pick up the award but Dr Douglas was at her home in Jesmond Vale, Newcastle, as she became a mother to daughter Flora only five weeks ago.

She said: “We are thrilled with the award. I think the Ig Nobels are brilliant by being awarded for work which does make people laugh but also brings science into the public domain.” Dr Douglas studied agriculture at Newcastle University and worked as a dairy farming nutritional adviser before taking a PhD in the welfare and behaviour of cows.

She said: “The amusing side of the research was that giving a cow a name meant she produced more milk and there was a lot of light-hearted discussion around what the best name might be. But the important message was about animal welfare and improving human-animal relationships. Farmers who talked to and stroked or patted their cows had massive increases in milk yields.

“We showed that by giving more individual attention, such as calling a cow by her name or interacting with her more as she grows up, you can reduce the levels of stress.

“Stress produces the hormone cortisol which can impair milk production so reducing the stress levels leads to an increase in yield.”

The Ig Nobels are “intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative -- and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” Dr Rowlinson said: “These awards are light-hearted and fun but they also have an underlying message that just because something makes us laugh doesn’t mean it isn’t sound, or potentially important, science.”

Flight of fancy

THE last previous North East winners of an Ig Nobel prize four years ago were Newcastle University neurobiologists Drs Claire Rind and Peter Simmons.

Their work involved showing locusts scenes from Star Wars movies.

Their project investigated how locusts manage to avoid midair collisions – and how that could be translated into car technology.

They studied the reactions of a nerve cell in the locust to images of approaching objects. Star Wars videos fitted the bill because of shots of objects heading directly towards the camera, especially in the movies’ dogfight scenes.

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