Researcher Jennifer Pokorny is now the second UC Davis affiliate to win a prestigious Ig Nobel Prize. Pokorny collected the prize, which she shared with Frans de Waal of The Netherlands, at the annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University on Sept. 20.
Pokorny and de Waal were awarded the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for Anatomy “for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.”
UC Davis’ other Ig Nobel laureate is Professor Ivan Schwab of the Department of Ophthalmology, who won the Ornithology Prize in 2006 for his studies on why woodpeckers do not get headaches.
Pokorny said she was contacted by the Ig Nobel organizers in April to ask if she would accept the award, and sworn to secrecy leading up to the Sept. 20 ceremony. A video of the event is available here (de Waal and Pokorny appear at 1.23).
“It was a fun celebration of science,” she said.
The work was conducted while Pokorny was working at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Most of Pokorny’s work there was with Capuchin monkeys.
The aim of the study was to find out if chimpanzees could determine the sex of another chimp by looking at its face, Pokorny said. Humans are very good at recognizing facial features, and it used to be thought that this was a uniquely human ability. However, researchers have shown that chimps, monkeys and even sheep can recognize faces of individuals of their species that they know, she said.
“We wanted to know if they could tell the sex from the face,” Pokorny said.
Pokorny and de Waals showed chimps cropped pictures of the faces and “anogenital region” or backside of other chimpanzees. Some were animals they already knew, and some were unfamiliar.
The chimps were able to identify a chimp that they knew by a photo of its behind, they found. The chimps could also learn to identify familiar chimps (but not ones they didn’t know) as male or female from their faces. In experiments, the chimps were able to look at a face and associate it with a generic male or female chimp behind.
Pokorny is now working at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and at the MIND Institute, where she is carrying out research on social cognition in children and adolescents with autism.
Here’s the full video of the ceremony.