Science

#UnScienceAnAnimal Reminds Us How Bizarre and Unknowable Nature Is

A beagle mix photo by @shanpalus labeled with unscientific terms.
The author’s dog, UnScienced.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Shannon Palus

There sure are some good animal jokes on Twitter right now, thanks to the #UnScienceAnAnimal hashtag that sprung up this week. The conceit is to take a picture of a creature and then annotate its anatomy for comic effect—a zoological form of object labeling. In unscience-an-animal speak, a pangolin’s nose is a “bug snuffler” A gazelle has a pair of “stabbies” on its head. A sea otter’s fur is “fuzzy impenetrable dive suit.” Every part of a hallucigenia, which is an extinct sea creature that looks like a worm with large spikes, is labeled “what.”

The tactic has been applied to a few non-animals, too. For example:

The jokes are in the same delightful vein as the older concept of WTF Evolution, a book and blog by science writer Mara Grunbaum. In WTF Evolution, Grunbaum imagines conversations between an observer of bizarre creatures on this earth and their creator, evolution. Here’s an example, per a story she wrote in 2014 for Slate about the conceit:

“You know that elephant seal I made? The one with the awesome floppy nose?”

“Yes, evolution, that was a pretty good nose.”

“And you know how it kept getting parasites up inside it?”

“I heard that was an issue.”

“I fixed it.”

“You fixed it? What did you do, give the elephant seal more protective mucus? A better immune system? Stronger nose hairs?”

“Nope! That all seemed too hard. I just made a nose-picking bird.”

“A nose-picking bird.”

“Works great!”

Elephant seal
Photo courtesy Dickie Duckett/FLPA/Minden Pictures

Grunbaum first got the idea after noticing that a pelican’s open mouth looks oddly like a toilet, and then kept playfully questioning why animals look the way they do. Another example: Of a fluffy orange-yellow caterpillar called a megalopygidae, she asks, “like, what is its ecological niche going to be?” Evolution replies: “Oh, I don’t know. Do I have to think of everything? I mean, I guess it could run for president of the United States.”

As the master of the brand, we decided to ask Grunbaum for advice on how to jump in. “Start by pretending you’ve never seen this animal before,” she explained. “What stands out and looks silly about it? What would you think it was called if you didn’t know science words?”

Next, “remember what you DO know, and work that back in.” She points to a wild dog’s ears labeled “friend detector” in un-science speak, and its mouth labeled “food hole (two way)” as good examples of incorporating some reality into the joke, which makes the punch a little stronger.

The exercise is a refreshing rejoinder to a school of thought that science, and science communication, is strictly about knowing everything, and getting tall the facts right, like we’re all on some Neil-de-Grasse-Tyson led march toward never making mistakes (or pretending we don’t, anyway). Like science, humor traffics in curiosity and surprise. The jokes in #UnScienceAnAnimal and WTF Evolution both highlight the unexpected. Why does the animal kingdom feature so many little tufts of floof? Why so many shape of feet? How did this creature entirely made of spikes even get here? In some cases, we know the answer, and in some cases, we don’t. Animals are “kind of dumb and weird and funny-looking sometimes, and I think there’s a lot of humor in admitting that, and puncturing the bubble of seriousness while still learning new things,” says Grunbaum.

Plus, it’s reassuring. “Personally, it also just makes me feel better,” says Grunbaum. “I may not be able to get my shit together, but neither can this bobcat, so maybe I’m doing okay.”