When, after watching hours of David Attenborough, a child declares that they want to be a biologist, it’s safe to assume that they like animals. Most normal kids are not watching awe-inspiring flora and fauna and thinking about how delicious it may be. But age seems to have an interesting effect on the inclinations of the scientific community. To the horror of innocent animal-loving children, it seems that many biologists come to the lab armed with a knife and fork as well as a microscope.
Eating the animals you’re supposed to be studying might seem like a sick joke to those not in the know. Surely scientific funding hasn’t got so bad that boffins are having to scrounge a living from pickled snakes and birds rescued from the taxidermist’s table? Gruesome though it may seem, there are actually a number of very reasonable explanations as to why scientists feel that they have to get stuck into an endangered species in order to get the next big breakthrough.
One of the early advocates for this hands-on approach to research was pioneering primatologist Richard Wrangham. While studying the behaviour of chimpanzees with world-renowned scientist Jane Goodall, Wrangham found himself frustrated by being unable to fully grasp the lives of the animals that he was studying. Much of their daily routine, and particularly their food, remained mysterious. He therefore endeavoured to live as identical a lifestyle to the creatures as possible, all the way down to their diet.
Despite finding that the leaves and roots that made up the vast majority of chimpanzee food tasted, “so poor that [he] could not fill [his] stomach with them”, Wrangham’s approach yielded some fascinating results when it came to flesh. After observing different groups track and kill colobus monkeys, Wrangham decided that he himself needed to sample some monkey meat. Scavenging and sampling some raw remains, Wrangham concluded that the colobus were far superior to the odious plant matter, which in turn informed him about the origins of our own omnivorous diet. Thus, a sub-discipline of comestible biology was born.
Following on from Wrangham’s work, several scientists have used eating to illuminate a number of key issues. For one field in particular, taste is regarded as an indispensable part of the scientific method. According to Dr Kabir Gabriel, the study of fungi - where certain species can often look identical - relies on taste and smell as a means of effective categorisation. Whether you’re in the field or in a lab, taking a bite out of your test subject can often be the best (if not somewhat risky) way to tell exactly what you’re dealing with.
Unlike on TV, eating can also play a key role in scientific detective work. When scientists are stumped by a particular biological mystery, taste can provide the missing piece of the jigsaw. A great example of this is the work of zoologist Richard Wasserug. Determined to understand what set some slow species of tadpole apart from their speedy counterparts, he devised a macabre test for his students. Taking eight different samples, he fed the tadpoles to a presumably alarmed class, where it was then revealed that the slower species tasted far worse - proving Wasserug’s hypothesis that slow tadpoles had in fact evolved a bad taste to repel predators.
Though there can clearly be a value to eating your test subject, sometimes scientists are forced into unusual diets out of necessity. When filming a documentary for the BBC on the subject of parasites, Dr Michael Mosely took an extremely radical step to give the public an authentic parasitic account. At the start of an experiment to discover the effects of a tapeworm on the human body, the good doctor decided to ingest three tapeworm eggs and record the results. This decision ultimately helped him to report that a tapeworm infection has very little effect at all, other than prompting an inexplicable craving for chocolate.
Though scientists are obviously at the centre of some of the most important research on earth, there are occasions where mischief gets the better of them. This often manifests itself in food. Biology students and professors across the world report strange eating challenges, where young scientists are encouraged to consume a wealth of oddities as part of an initiation ceremony. A particular hotbed for these hijinks are invertebrate labs. More often than not, new members are expected to cook and serve their test subjects after they’ve finished with them, provided that they aren’t poisonous.
There are probably very few people who go into a biological profession with food on the brain. But, as these varying accounts prove, if you want to experience some of the more unusual and unorthodox flavours that the animal kingdom has to offer, perhaps you should exchange a kitchen for a lab. It might go against everything you thought you knew about science, but there is clearly more going on than meets the eye in the biology department.