The Most Bizarre Scientific Paper Ever Published

Anyone who works with science on a daily basis knows that it can sometimes be totally and utterly bizarre. One recently published scientific paper falls into that category, and perhaps raises the bar for absurdity. The study does have some educational benefits, and it proves a good point. Beyond that, however, it makes for a hearty laugh.

Below is a quick overview of the science to set the scene. But before we go any further, I would like to stress that this is a legitimate peer-reviewed article that was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, a respected scientific journal. It was published May 21, 2014 — not April 1 as you might imagine after reading it.

The Problem
Scientists studying human physiology typically run their experiments on special breeds of laboratory mice. By doing so, they can control all factors in their environment, such as their exposure to light, their diet and alcohol intake. When it comes to studying metabolism, they need those mice to be active. Hence, scientists position a mouse wheel in their cage.

Mice love those wheels. It gets their heart rate pumping, burns off those fattening pellets, and probably makes them feel free. However, a long-running discussion is in play about whether the wheels are a valid proxy for what happens in the wild. Are the mice running as an expression of their drive for activity and exercise? Or is it a product of their caged environment, triggering some unnatural, compulsive behavior – like prisoners doing sit-ups in a jail cell? Mice haven’t spent millennia evolving alongside treadmills.

The Study
To better understand the behavior, scientists in the department of molecular cell biology, at Leiden University Medical Centre in The Netherlands, placed running wheels in nature, in areas where they knew wild mice hung out. For no apparent reason or reward, the wild mice jumped on the wheels and ran for as long as their counterparts in cages. Automatic motion detectors and a night-vision camera captured their workout sessions.

This is ridiculous. A feral mouse going for a run on a wheel, tiring itself out and making noise that would attract possible predators? One mouse ran for 18 minutes straight.

Beyond mice, other animals were having a go. A full 12 percent of wheel movement was generated by species other than mice. In order of frequency, slugs were the next most common users of the running wheel. Next in line were rats and shrews, then frogs. How do frogs even work a running wheel? The report published both images and videos.

Of note, one little champion snail also went for a spin, the only representative from his species.

As a result of the experiment, physiologists studying mice metabolism and exercise can now reference running wheel statistics with a little more conviction. Apparently quite a few species naturally pick up the sport, even in the wild. Anecdotally it would appear this behavior doesn’t extend to humans.