Indiana Jones has nothing on Auckland scientist David Raubenheimer. His work has seen him tracking snow leopards in the forbidden wilds of Nepal, swimming with great whites off the coast of South Africa and being peed on in Africa. He tells Alan Perrott that it's all for the sake of our diet.
He'd set out for an answer to the eternal question: "does my bum look big in these?" Instead, David Raubenheimer ended up on the wrong end of a chimp taking a cheeky leak. This is the magic that happens when science leaves the lab.
It was one steamy summer day last year and the Massey University professor was out checking the lie of the land in the jungles of Uganda before yet another day of watching Colobus monkeys eat themselves to sleep. Other than the place being hot, sticky and alive with starving insects, the experience was something close to idyllic. Until a single, raw screech broke out. And then another and another, until an unholy choir of berserkers was letting loose somewhere nearby. Then silence.
Raubenheimer looked at his guide. The guide looked back. Then they shrugged and set off again ... only to find dozens of curious eyes waiting for them around the next bend.
Chimpanzees. Not an unexpected sight in an African jungle, but this was a troop the guide had never seen before. And judging by their reaction, the apes were thinking the same thing. Your more worldly chimp continues doing whatever it was doing as people approach; this lot were sitting stock-still and watching the pair intently.
Any attempt to move closer sent an ape scurrying for the nearest tree, from where it would continue watching. Then the largest male placed himself between the invaders and his harem for a facedown. When a toothy charge failed to convince Raubenheimer to back off, he climbed a well-placed tree and emptied his bladder at him.
Now, this incident may not have the same impact as the apple that fell on Newton's head but Raubenheimer says it was "magnificent", just the same.
All the same, you may be wondering what all this has to do with bum size. Well, this peed-on professor is a nutritional ecologist, one who is building a career around figuring out how all creatures great and small go about obtaining the nutrients they need to survive.
It's becoming a life mission for the 49-year-old. And, once completed, he hopes to be able to explain our unshakeable fondness for eating rubbish. Of course, such knowledge won't make anyone's bum smaller overnight, but we'll at least understand how it got to the state it's in.
Raubenheimer quite literally jumped into his work. As a child, he liked nothing more than leaping into the waters off South Africa's Cape Town from his dad's tuna boat. Marine biology became his first love and after graduating from the University of Cape Town he began a 17-year stint at Merton College, one of Oxford's oldest, where he completed a PhD.
If his studies there were stimulating, the diving was hopeless, so he emigrated once more, to New Zealand in 2004 with his wife and two boys in tow.
While Raubenheimer works from a small office at Massey's Albany campus, the unused picture hooks dotting its walls tell you his focus is elsewhere. He's much happier diving along the east coast between the Three Kings and Stewart Island - mostly in an attempt to spear various examples of the herbivorous butterfish - while also studying the kakapo on Cod Fish Island, Cape Kidnapper's gannets and an assortment of locusts and cockroaches.
Offshore, he has scrutinised the diets of China's golden snub-nosed monkeys, Bolivian spider monkeys, the various apes of Uganda, the people of Australia and Jamaica, and the sheep and leopards of Nepal. Collectively, these efforts deliver enough data to keep Raubenheimer and his collaborators in Australia, the United States and South Africa flat out compiling, digesting and publishing what, to the layman, might seem the essence of esoteric science.
Last month, for example, he made a return trip to South Africa to prepare for one of the stranger experiments he'll undertake, and this one actually does focus on big bottoms - those of the Pygmy sperm whale.
The gist of the research is that when alarmed, these creatures excrete an inky substance, much like a squid does. Aside from the skunk and a particularly skittery human, they may be the only mammal able to boast such a trick. The question is: does it serve a purpose? Raubenheimer suspects it's more defence mechanism than panic response or smokescreen and may even work as a shark repellent.
He also has the carcasses of three pygmy whales, from a recent stranding near Christchurch, stored in his department's extra-large freezer waiting to have the ink within their nether regions removed. Then he needs to figure out how to squirt it at a shark so he can see if it runs away. Hence the need to sit in a cage and watch how great whites swim.
The experience was more unnerving than he expected. "I've seen sharks during my dives in New Zealand but they are far fewer and much smaller than these. So, yes, I was nervous and it took a fair while to get used to the experience."
If this experiment works he will have identified another mechanism that has evolved to ward off predators, much like a plant using a toxin to prevent caterpillars taking a bite.
From swimming with sharks, to altitude sickness. Raubenheimer was pushed to extremes last November by his work studying endangered Asian snow leopards, their meal of choice, blue sheep, and the threat to both caused by climate change and/or trigger-happy farmers.
If diving with sharks was dodgy, he says becoming the first foreign scientist to be granted free travel through the forbidden sections of Nepal was transformational.
"Amazing. It really was," he says, "I was in an area that was completely different to anything I've ever experienced; it was the environment, the conditions, the culture, the food - even the hygiene. It was all extreme."
Just getting there would have tested many travellers. From Kathmandu he drove to Nepal's third largest city, Pokhara, with a stop-off at the Chitwan National Park where he did some prep work - from the back of an elephant - for an upcoming study on tigers and rhinos. He then flew to a speck on the map called Jomson, before walking six hours to reach the horses that carried him to the walled village of Lo Manthang, the 900-strong, quasi-independent capital of the ancient kingdom of Mustang - one of the few remaining examples of traditional Buddhist Tibetan culture.
Trying to track blue sheep at altitudes that never dropped below 4000m took a serious effort. So he enlisted the help of two local PhD students, Raj Koirala and Achyut Aryal, who are now working with him on other projects.
Speaking from his home in Pokhara, Koirala says even he was tested by their task. Especially as he'd never travelled by horse. For three days they crept along vertical, arid cliffs where they contended with extreme temperatures and the sand-laden winds.
"David acclimatised with the weather and the local food very fast," says Koirala, "Except for a slight headache on the third day."
Raubenheimer prefers to call the headache that left him longing for death for about eight hours acute altitude sickness. He also got a dose of the bot once they got to Lo Manthang, possibly from one too many meals of rice and barley, coated with spicy lentil sauce, and yak meat. Other than that, he was great.
Koirala was particularly impressed by Raubenheimer's skill at lugging gear: "In some places he was carrying more than 20kg in baggage and walking for hours because the terrain was too difficult for the horses." Raubenheimer credits such endurance to a spell in the South African army.
Mentally, Aryal suggests the low oxygen may, at times, have got the better of their guest. At one point he got into a panic as he searched for his glasses. Fair enough, too, given the glare coming off the snow, but he was wearing them at the time.
Such issues aside, the pair did manage to teach the professor enough of the local dialect for him to coax a few dances out of the ladies when they reached their destination.
Having ascended faster than was healthy, the team were forced to pause in the village for two days of rest before climbing again to chase sheep and look for leopard signs. The stop-off gave Raubenheimer one of his more memorable birthdays. An enthusiastic home brewer, he found the local hooch - a roughly fermented barley wine - as powerful as it was testing on the palate. The thin air only made its impact more powerful. He did have some beer with him but that was saved for a special toast once when they completed scaling a 4600m peak.
It was also made clear to him how important his project was to the Nepalese. For the past 10 years the local farmers have watched their desert environment become drier, a change that delivers immediate results in a vertical landscape.
With dwindling food at the higher altitudes, the sheep have been pushed downward and the predatory leopards aren't far behind. As a result the sheep are eating the crops, the leopards are eating the goats, and the farmers are getting trigger-happy. There is a desperate hope that the team's work will lead to a better understanding of the migration patterns of both species and assist the government to formulate a management plan.
With so many studies on the go, you can't help but wonder whether there are any conclusions emerging from all Raubenheimer's work?
In a nutshell, he has found that it appears to make no difference whether you are a bug or an ape, everything, in the end, boils down to protein. And if it does, it appears that Dr Robert Atkins - he of the famous diet - might have been right after all.
Obviously it's much more complex than that - one ingredient in a meal can feature dozens of nutritional compounds - but at the most basic level it's meat versus potatoes versus sugar. The tricky bit is how we balance those foods to maintain good health. In this even bugs are way ahead of us, especially cockroaches, the masters of dieting who recognise good food with their feet.
Raubenheimer has tried messing with their diet by removing all protein in favour of carbohydrate. He found they then reverse that ratio for the same amount of time as it had been out-of-whack. So, if you feed a cockroach nothing but sugar for a week, it'll want nothing but meat for the next week.
Other creatures have their own methods of reaching the same result. Rats will happily eat anything and not give a toss about their waistlines. When they over-indulge in sticky buns they have specialised fat cells that consume surplus energy by generating heat.
As for people, we're a lot like spider monkeys. To a limited extent we can act like roaches and will feel an instinctive need to correct a dietary imbalance, but it's usually fleeting. Our standard technique is to eat enough of whatever is at hand until our protein quota is reached. If you have a ready supply of high protein/low carb foodstuffs you're fine, but the proliferation of cheap options has seen far too many of us relying on low protein/high carb. The result is obesity.
In prehistoric times this diet plan didn't matter because excess fat could be burned off while chasing a mammoth. Now we just watch mammoths on the telly. Of course, it doesn't help that the best foods are often also the most expensive.
But there is plenty of work to be done before Raubenheimer is ready to announce any final conclusions. For starters, he has to test his whale ink on a hapless shark before heading back to Uganda again to hang out with mountain gorillas, while also co-ordinating the work in Nepal. Who said research had to be boring?
"Well, people do often tell me that what I do is an opportunity to indulge my hobbies," he says. "But really, adventure is never the aim of my work, it's a spin-off. I'm a scientist first and foremost, not Indiana Jones. With every question we answer, more are created, so I'm pretty keen on surviving and getting my work done. Danger can be exciting but it is never a good thing."