Maker’s Week at the Zoo is Business as Usual

When the right product doesn’t exist for a fish ultrasound or other procedure, scientists build it themselves

June 18th marks the end of the National Week of Making, an initiative established by the White House to encourage ingenuity and creativity.

What, only one week? In the world of scientists every week has the potential to be “Maker’s Week.” It’s hard to deny that among the makers of the world, scientists have come up with some of the wackiest contraptions to solve their problems and answer their burning questions.

At the National Zoo, when marine biologist Mary Hagedorn was pioneering the first sperm and embryo bank for corals, she needed something to hold her sample tubes for freezing, but the right product didn’t exist. So she made it. And what does a researcher who spends a lot of time bouncing from one tropical wonderland to another have readily available? Flip flops. Hagedorn stitched metal tube holders to the foam soles of cheap flip flops (new ones of course), and voilà, a custom tube rack.

Modeled after human sperm bank technology, the cryopreservation system Hagedorn developed can keep the coral sperm and embryos alive and viable for decades. They may one day be used to generate new corals, repopulate endangered reefs or add genetic diversity to small populations.

Keeping a five-foot-long, 60-pound fish still for an ultrasound isn’t easy, but that’s essentially what staff at the National Zoo’s Amazonia exhibit had to do. They recently noticed swelling around the abdomen of the exhibit’s arapaima, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Veterinarian James Steeil needed to perform an ultrasound and a radiograph to see what was going on.

There’s no standard way to handle such a thing, so biologist Richard Quintero set about hacking and drilling a clear plastic tube large enough to hold the creature. With holes for drainage and slots for Steeil’s imaging equipment, the tube was the perfect containment device. The hard part was getting the patient in it. According to curator Lee Jackson, the team blocked off the narrowest area of the exhibit pool with nets, cornered the fish and then pushed it into the tube.

Unable to squirm away, the patient submitted to an examination that revealed the problem. Jackson says the arapaima apparently had mistaken rocks for food. Getting them out of its belly is going to be the next challenge, and you can be sure next week is going to be Maker’s Week all over again at the Zoo.

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