Quick, imagine a biologist. Are you picturing someone wearing a starched white lab-coat in a clean, quiet office? The reality is, many biologists wring their insights out of a much messier life spent in the field. And that can mean busted axles, faulty equipment and the need to MacGyver the heck out of a situation just to get the data you need.
Take Cody D. Godwin, a PhD candidate at Southeastern Louisiana University. As part of a study on razor-backed musk turtles, Godwin and his colleagues needed to take tissue samples from the webbing on the turtles’ feet. The turtles, of course, wanted to avoid this, and so they snapped at the researchers with all their might. Realizing he needed a better way to restrain the cantankerous beasts, Godwin looked around his kitchen until his eyes settled upon … a beer koozie.
After all, Godwin says, “herpetologists drink a lot of beer.” Wonderfully, his method of necessity turned out to be successful: “I slipped it on and the animal calmed down and was incapable of biting," he says. "Worked like a charm.” He went on to publish his findings in the journal Herpetological Review.
Godwin is far from the first herpetologist to publish a novel way to restrain a reptile. Another group showed that regular old toilet plungers work great for taking the snap out of snapping turtles—which is no small miracle. "I have been bitten by every species that we have worked with barring the alligator snapping turtle. If a large one of those bites you it will simply destroy what it bites," says Eric Munscher, director of the Turtle Survival Alliance North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group.
One of Munscher's most memorable biting experiences was when a Florida softshell turtle that weighed over 30 pounds tore a chunk out of his palm. "Just the price you pay when working with wildlife," he says lightly.
Nor are these the first researchers to repurpose a common household object in the name of weird science. Justine Hudson, a MSc student at the University of Manitoba, has modified painters’ poles for collecting beluga whale snot. Aaron Pomerantz, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley, likes to use camel-hair paintbrushes for handling small, easily squished insects. And North Carolina State University entomologist Matt Bertone says there’s no better tool for doling out dollops of cow poop (which he uses to bait dung beetle traps) than his grandma’s old ice cream scoop. Yum!
Enjoy a few of the most unlikely household items that creative scientists have repurposed in the name of research.
The infamous turtle beer koozie harness.