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Phony felines and dogged determination

by Alexandra A. Taylor
May 5, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 18


A plague of cats

A plastic crate containing Garfield phones and phone pieces.
Credit: Baldenweck Géry/Newscom
Phone call: If you never received your Garfield phone, please come pick it up off the beach.

Near Finistère did volunteers
The origin of litter reach:
Where Garf, the lazy kitty, swam
Through tides impassible to man
Onto a Breton beach.

The Newscripts gang was inspired to craft this verse (with apologies to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) after reading about how phones shaped like the lasagna-loving cartoon feline Garfield had, for decades, littered the Iroise coast of Brittany, France. Until recently, the source of hundreds of novelty Garfield phones had remained a mystery.

Since the 1980s, the cartoon house cat has washed up in various states of repair, and activists in Brittany couldn’t make heads or tails of the situation. Finally, Franceinfo’s #AlertePollution campaign caught the attention of a local resident, who led a group, including volunteers from the antilittering organization Ar Viltansoù, to a grotto he remembered from his youth. It contained the remains of a metal shipping container and bits of the phones. The container had likely been lost from a ship during a storm and had washed into the cave, inaccessible except for a few days a year at just the right tides.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer coordinates an international network of beachcombers that studies the movement of flotsam on ocean currents. He says shipping containers are lost from time to time, but rarely do they become lodged out of sight.

Ebbesmeyer’s group has been investigating a shipment of Nike sneakers that was lost about 30 km off the coast of North Carolina in March 2018. The sneakers are now washing up in the same region as the Garfield phones, meaning it took them about 1 year to cross the pond. “A 1-year drift across the North Atlantic is pretty typical,” Ebbesmeyer says. “But being trapped in a grotto for 30 years is not typical.”

Unfortunately, the grotto was almost entirely empty. “We arrive after the battle,” Claire Simonin-Le Meur, Ar Viltansoù’s president, tells the French newspaper Le Monde.

The feline phones will most likely wash up for years to come. As Ebbesmeyer says, “It just shows you the longevity of plastic in the ocean.”


Snacking order

Members of Rochman's lab lie in a circle around Bear the dog.
Credit: Rochman Lab
Center of attention: Bear is one of a few animals credited for his contribution to science.

While Ar Viltansoù pursues an iconic cat, Chelsea Rochman is studying the kind of plastic you can’t see. Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, was planning a collaborative perspective paper about the importance of treating microplastics as a diverse class of pollutants. She’d learned that alphabetizing authors can disadvantage contributors whose names come at the end. Rochman challenged her lab to come up with a randomization technique that was more equitable than the ABCs.

Clara Thaysen, a graduate student in Rochman’s lab, spearheaded a uniquely adorable solution. “We wanted to put something funny in the acknowledgments because we want to show that science isn’t always really serious,” she says. “Scientists can have fun, too.”

Thaysen says she came across methods for determining author order that involved competitions but that the group wanted to do something that required no skill. She was inspired while scrolling through Instagram—because where else does one become inspired in 2019? A dog was presented with two bowls of kibble, each representing a team competing in the Super Bowl. Whichever bowl the dog finished first was its owner’s prediction for the winner.

Thaysen knew just the dog for the job: her friend Dianya Luo’s companion Bear. She knew she couldn’t feed Bear 30 bowls of kibble. So she devised a plan to stick pieces of masking tape labeled with her lab mates’ names randomly across a floor, placing a single piece of kibble next to each one. As Bear ate the kibble, someone would read out the name, and the author order would flow from there.

Thaysen had envisioned that Bear would run around the room eating the kibble at random. But then she remembered that Bear is a dog. “He’s going to eat whatever he sees first,” Thaysen says. To combat this proclivity, after every few snacks, Luo picked Bear up and turned him around so that he would start on a new section.

Rochman’s lab thanks Bear and Luo for their help in the paper’s acknowledgments. “He loved it,” Thaysen says. “He had a great time.”

Alexandra Taylor wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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