In the murky backwaters of the internet, it’s possible to discover a gem. The Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group (HORG) is devoted to the scientific study of creatures known as occlupanids. If their physiology looks oddly familiar, it might be because you’re used to calling occlupanids by their common name – that is, if you bother to talk about them at all. Occlupanid derives from occlu, meaning close, and pan, meaning bread. These creatures are bread ties – the small plastic clips that keep bread bags closed.
The HORG site carefully describes the anatomy of each ‘species’ of bread tie, based on the shape of its plastic teeth (‘oral groove’ in the site’s terminology), and assigns each a Latin name and place in the evolutionary tree.
It’s hard to know whether this is science, art or a very elaborate gag. While the classification has been approached with the pedantic rigour of a serious scientist, surely the site’s claim that occlupanids “take nourishment from plastic sacs that surround the bagged product, not the product itself, as was previously thought” is dripping with irony.
While the site gives the impression that HORG is run by a collective of enthusiasts, in reality—and he doesn’t mind this being known—the entire organisation consists of California-based John Daniel, writing, as he describes it, “as if I were merely part of an established and somewhat bureaucratic institution.” For Daniel, the site has been a long-running labour of love.
In 1994 I was staring straight at the wooden floor of a friend’s San Francisco apartment, and a lone occlupanid was wedged between the boards. I’d never really noticed how biomechanical they looked. Parasitic, even. Soon after I started noticing them everywhere, the various forms, colours, and arcane markings. They gripped firmly onto my mind and haven’t let go since.
Daniel’s site is both the product of a genuine obsession and a parody of just such an obsession. He has deliberately adopted what he describes as a “stilted faux-scientific style,” and the site contains “spurious claims about occlupanids‘ life cycles, shoddy reasoning for speciation, and outright befuddlement as to how they might reproduce.”
As a biologist, I found that the site struck a chord. I work with insects, and once spent hours trying to classify a midge on the basis of whether it had, as the key put it, ‘deeply pubescent eyes,’ a term I did not understand and feared I couldn’t Google without alerting child protection authorities. So Daniel’s skewering of self-important scientific language was satisfying. (For the record, the term means ‘extremely hairy.’)
This seems to have been for the case for many other scientists and science fans. The way in which the site has found an audience has further blurred the lines between fiction and reality, as Daniel’s imaginary research community has spawned a real one. He now corresponds with occlupanid enthusiasts from around the world.
With the exception of those few I’ve collected in Singapore, all the other international occlupanids were sent to HORG by amateur occlupanologists, be they good friends or complete strangers. It’s gratifying to know that the urge to classify the clearly unclassifiable isn’t just a single mania, but one shared by others.
Just as the fiction of nerdy collegiality has come to fruition, Daniel’s invented term ‘occlupanid’ has also gained serious traction. It appears in a scientific paper published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. While studying occlupanids is funny because they are trivial pieces of detritus, there is one scenario in which they must be taken seriously.
According to the BMJ article, since 1975, there have been over twenty cases of plastic bag clips being accidently swallowed, and then adhering to patients’ intestinal mucosa. It’s thought that three post-operative deaths have occurred in relation to “plastic bag clips in the gastrointestinal tract.”
Although initially not visible on medical images, ingested occlupanids can accumulate salts, which cause them to show up, allowing the species to be identified. In yet another example of reality mimicking fiction, the paper calls for the elimination or redesign of clips to prevent ingestion or hooking onto the digestive tract, and refers to Daniel’s classification system as an important reference for this process. As Daniel puts it: “Suddenly the site that played with scientific concepts was being used for actual medical research. It’s the best punchline to the initial gag I could ever hope for.”
This punchline exemplifies how research can be both a parody of science, and actually be science. Despite the comic aspects of Daniel’s work, “There is a decided ethic that runs through HORG. Everything is based on actual samples, sent in and carefully catalogued.”
A similar phenomenon is celebrated annually by the Ig Nobel Prize, which awards such projects as Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s study on the origin and composition of bellybutton fluff. In the same vein is the 2005 study by researchers at the Macfarlane Burnet medical research institute, which examined the fates of specially marked teaspoons in the institute’s tearooms. While trivial subject matter seems to make a mockery of serious science, on the purely objective criterion of adherence to the scientific method, these projects are science. And when it comes to subject matter, one person’s trivia can be another person’s serious medical condition.
Yet medical research into occlupanids could also lead to their extinction. Since their invention by the company Kwik Lok in the 1950s, they have become a staple of post-industrial life. But due to ingestion dangers, bread ties are currently banned in the UK, in favour of small pieces of sticky tape.
Recently, there have been calls to ban them in Australia. Like coalscuttles or moustache cups today, these banally familiar objects may become unrecognisable to future generations. If so, Daniel’s site could acquire yet another layer of significance – as an anthropological record of, as he describes it, these “tiny products crafted especially to live beneath the radar of our awareness.”
Rhianna Boyle is a zoologist and writer. A previous column for The Lifted Brow appears in The Best Australian Science Writing 2013.