The Musk Turtle Beer Koozie and Other Household Items We Use for Science

When the going gets tough, creative researchers turn to plastic lizard protectors, monkey loofahs and deer vagina trackers

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A harmless toilet plunger really takes the snap out of a snapping turtle. Eric Munscher

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.

Creature Comforts

The infamous turtle beer koozie harness.

The Awkward Truth About Studying Deer Fawns

(Jeannine Fleegle)

The best way to study deer populations is to get as many deers as you can fitted with radio collars, which track location data on the fleet-footed ungulates. But with all those beautiful Bambi spots as camouflage, deer fawns can be exceedingly difficult to find in the hours after they enter this world. The solution? A smart little device known as a VIT, or: Vaginal Implant Transmitter.

VITs are basically the field-work equivalent of that pop-up thermometer they put in Thanksgiving turkeys: They’re little IUD-shaped trackers that are inserted through the vaginal canal and nestled up against the cervix of a pregnant doe. When the doe goes into labor, the VIT ejects out of the birth canal and onto the ground. By measuring a rapid change in temperature, the VIT then starts pinging scientists that a fawn has been born—and they come running with the collars.  

As you might imagine, inserting the VITs can be a rather tricky process, says Jeannine Fleegle, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania State Game Commission who has assisted in inserting VITs over the last two fawning seasons. But it turns out you don’t need any fancy medical instruments to do it properly—just a rudimentary plunger made using two lengths of PVC pipe from the nearest Home Depot and a bottle of personal lubricant. Oh, and some sedative for the doe, which makes the process easier for everyone involved.

All in all, VITs allow scientists to reliably find and tag fawns that might otherwise die or disappear before they could be spotted. But as Fleegle attests, the method’s inherent ickiness and cost mean it’s not a favorite among the biologists. Sometimes the data is worth the means, though. 

How Much for the Babe Newt Rookie Card?

Salamanders would much rather be nestled under a rotting log than in a researcher’s palm. That’s why these squiggly, slippery little buggers tend to wriggle out of herpetologists’ grasp, or even detach their tails if they think it’ll help them get away. These tendencies make it rather difficult for scientists to study the amphibians without inducing undue stress or limb loss.

One solution, University of Alabama PhD candidate Nick Caruso has found, is to use the plastic sleeves typically used to protect baseball cards. It turns out these sleeves make great salamander holders: Not only are the little critters restrained, but the clear plastic allows scientists to take measurements and examine the salamanders’ undersides for interesting belly patterns. Just don’t accidentally trade a gray newt for a Babe Ruth.

The Macaque and the Bath Poof

Most of us use loofahs—otherwise known as bath poofs or body sponges—to clean ourselves in the tub. But Eliza Bliss-Moreau, a primatologist at the University of California-Davis, is using these ubiquitous cleansers for a very different purpose. She’s found that monkeys are also interested in these novel items—and what they do with them might give scientists insight into their very consciousness.

“We're evaluating individual variation in affective reactivity,” says Bliss-Moreau. “The basic mechanisms that support some individuals being total drama kings or queens and others being cool as cucumbers.”

Cheese graters, silk flowers, feather dusters—Bliss Moreau wanders the aisles of Target and Home Depot looking for items that might be interesting to a monkey.  As for the poof in the picture, Bliss-Moreau says she hadn’t even started the experiment for the day yet. But one of the macaques had gone digging through her backpack while she was attending to something else and made off with the loofah.  

Set It and Forget It

Andrew Thaler, a marine science and conservation consultant, specializes in finding clever technological solutions to conservation issues in the deep sea. Much of that work is done via remotely operated vehicles equipped with all kinds of gadgets—for instance, devices that measure conductivity, temperature, and depth (or CTDs) are pretty standard fare.

The thing is, you have to make sure these oceanographic sensors are reading correctly before they are deployed—that is, you have to calibrate them. And for that, Thaler relies on something a bit more creative: a regular ol’ slow-cooker.

Yes, the thing you fill with veggies and meat and leave in the kitchen to churn out a stew. The only drawback? When he’s calibrating, dinner gets put on hold. “That is our family's one and only crockpot,” says Thaler, who is also the CEO of an environmental consulting firm called Blackbeard Biologic. “Pulled pork. Corned beef. CTDs. They all slow-cook just the same.”

Open Your Mouth and Say ‘Ah’

There aren’t a lot of good ways to evaluate crocodile diets that don’t involve killing crocs, or risking your own life. Which is why Adam Rosenblatt, an ecologist at the University of North Florida, devised a simple way to take a peak at their gut contents without doing the creatures any lasting harm.

First, you secure the crocodilian on a portable workbench. Then you insert a metal water pipe into its maw so it can’t chomp down. Next you send a hose through the pipe so that you can pump the caiman’s belly full of water. “Finally, you do the Heimlich maneuver on the croc to force the water and any prey items out of the mouth and into a waiting bucket,” says Rosenblatt.

Don’t worry; it may look like this black caiman is being water-boarded, but it’s really a routine procedure. After the procedure, the croc is free to go on its way. The ecologist gets his data and the caiman is none the worse for wear, save for losing a bellyful of rotting flesh. In the case of the caiman pictured, it appears tropical rodent was on the menu.

“That’s the spine of an agouti hanging out of its mouth,” says Rosenblatt.  

Here, Kitty Kitty

As part of an effort to better understand landscape connectivity, San Diego State University research ecologist Megan Jennings set out to GPS-collar a bunch of bobcats. But, she first had to catch them.

Jennings started by baiting her traps with a “catnip-type powder”, as well as road-killed bits of deer, squirrels, and rabbits. This brought the cats to the area of the trap, but to actually lure them into the cage, she relied on something every cat person could probably guess: feathers.

“I use feather pillows as my feather source,” says Jennings. That’s right: straight out of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Bobcats are visual predators, so they will investigate anything that catches their eye. In fact, Jennings says another good trick is to hang old CDs, foil pie plates or scavenged mylar balloons outside of the trap. It may seem trashy, but science is about what works, not what looks good. 

Here, Kitty Kitty

As part of an effort to better understand landscape connectivity, San Diego State University research ecologist Megan Jennings set out to GPS-collar a bunch of bobcats. But, she first had to catch them.

Jennings started by baiting her traps with a “catnip-type powder”, as well as road-killed bits of deer, squirrels, and rabbits. This brought the cats to the area of the trap, but to actually lure them into the cage, she relied on something every cat person could probably guess: feathers.

“I use feather pillows as my feather source,” says Jennings. That’s right: straight out of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Bobcats are visual predators, so they will investigate anything that catches their eye. In fact, Jennings says another good trick is to hang old CDs, foil pie plates or scavenged mylar balloons outside of the trap. It may seem trashy, but science is about what works, not what looks good.