A TORTOISE was taught how to yawn on command by a University of Lincoln lecturer as part of a study delving into the minds of reptiles.
The unusual research was carried out by Dr Anna Wilkinson, a lecturer in animal behaviour who spent six months training red-footed tortoise Alexandra to yawn.
Her team then spent a further few months getting the tortoise to perform this party piece in front of other tortoises to see if the reptiles felt the urge to respond with a yawn of their own.
The unusual study, entitled No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise, has now bagged her an Ig Nobel physiology prize, which rewards research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think.
Dr Wilkinson, 30, of Lincoln said: "It's very important to get over the serious side of what we do. Training the tortoise to yawn was very hard. Most of our research is about reptile cognitive behaviour.
"Reptiles have traditionally been seen as these inert things that either adapt to their surroundings or die. But we have been looking at what stimuli they actually use to move around the world and having that knowledge will help with conservation and welfare efforts to protect them.
"This award will contribute significantly to raising the profile of research into tortoise and other reptile behaviour. This is very important as sharing these findings will help inform actions affecting the welfare of the animals and conservation of their habitats."
The training involved presenting the tortoise with a red square and giving it a reward when it opened its mouth.
During the six-month period, they got the tortoise to open its mouth further and further until its head was tilted back and it looked like it was yawning.
The research was done in collaboration with academics from the University of Vienna and Radboud University Nijmegen.
The awards, which were presented at Harvard University, USA.
The Ig Nobel awards are produced by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society.