What’s your best technical trick?

Doing ecology in any system often involves technical tricks, the kind of thing that never shows up in the Methods section of papers but is nevertheless essential for doing the work. Your Methods section might say that you implanted radio transmitters into sharks–but probably won’t say that you did this by taking advantage of the fact that sharks fall asleep if you flip them over.

Which is too bad, because it means that much of the obscure background knowledge, creativity, and cleverness involved in getting science done is invisible except to the cognoscenti, the few others who know the same technical tricks you do.

Don’t know that I have any super-clever technical tricks myself. I definitely do have tricks–running protist microcosms involves just as much as obscure background knowledge and technical know-how as running field experiments, however hard that might be for you muddy boots field ecologists to believe. 😉 But I don’t know that my tricks, important as they are for doing microcosm research, would be all that interesting to someone who doesn’t work in the system. For instance, we count our protists in water drops, live under a binocular microscope. To make the protists easier to spot it helps to tap the petri dish containing the sample on the microscope base. This gets the protists moving (I call it “flushing the game”) and so makes them easier to spot. It also flattens and spreads out the drop of water that you’re looking at, so that you’re not trying to look right down the side of a steep-sided water drop. Optical distortions prevent you from seeing protists swimming along the edge of a steep-sided drop of water. Like I said, dish tapping is a very useful trick–but somehow not as cool as flipping sharks over to make them fall asleep.

So, what are your best technical tricks?

16 thoughts on “What’s your best technical trick?

  1. Hmm, can’t think of any super cool science tricks right now, but when I worked on a farm, I learned that you flip sheep over onto their backs to shear them. They don’t fall asleep, but they do stop struggling if you do so. Hmm… maybe someone should do a study on the effects of flipping animals over.

  2. If any of you do have an interesting technical set up you’d like to share (field, lab, or computery ones), consider submitting an interview to EEB tools. We created the site for exactly this purpose.

  3. I’m not sure that this is a trick per se, but here goes.

    Several years ago, when I was just beginning my work in pond ecology as an undergraduate, I was given the task of searching a particular pond for tadpole eggs. (That in itself might be a skill.) Usually, all of the undergraduates like to go into the pond in their waders, but this one pond has been aptly nicknamed Stinky Pond by our lab. It has a very muddy bottom, and walking around without getting stuck is practically impossible. This gets worse if your waders don’t fit well, because every time you take a step, you leave the boot of your waders behind, and need to do a one-legged dance to get the boot back on.

    I’m still not sure how I was selected as the pond envoy, but I went in while my mentor and some other undergraduates stayed on shore. Sure enough, about ten feet in, I got seriously stuck. I struggled for a minute or two to get free, and then admitted to my audience that I had a problem. I’m not sure why, but I expected one of them (probably my mentor) to come rescue me. Apparently I was a very disillusioned undergraduate. 😛 Instead, my mentor threw me a five gallon bucket. I thought he was implying that I should attempt to bail myself out, and I remember my indignation. I’m sure I said something sarcastic to the effect of, “Yeah, I’m sure that will work.” But what he meant was that I could use the bucket as a sort of ballast for balance, pushing it into the water while pulling my stuck legs out.

    It works like a charm! I still use that trick all the time in squishy ponds.

  4. As an undergraduate, I worked with field-caught mice in the lab. They were much quicker than I was, so they escaped frequently. I don’t recall if it was a fellow undergraduate or my mentor who taught me this, but mice will follow corridors, so if you force them to a wall, they’ll run along that wall. Whenever a mouse got away from me, I just put a trap along the wall and made a bit of commotion. The mouse did the rest, following the wall, and going right into the trap. I’m not sure if this is really a trick either (it borders common sense in hindsight), but it worked, and likely provided entertainment for anyone who walked by the lab at that time.

  5. My biggest one is I *never* set up rectangular sampling plots when sampling tree density, which takes valuable time (gotta get distances and angles right, mark the corners and/or lines etc). I instead use an electronic distance measuring unit, to tell me whether I’m in or out of a circular plot defined by a center point (which has a pole with a target object to shoot on). Most importantly, it corrects automatically for vertical displacement, which is absolutely essential in steep terrain (try to accurately estimate horizontal distance by eye in steep terrain sometime!). Much faster, especially if sampling many plots over some defined area, which is the typical scenario in survey sampling.

  6. One cool low-tech tricks I saw was from the Preuss lab in Aachen. They do small-scale (about a liter) population experiments with Daphnia where they want to measure the abundance and size structure of the populations every other day. They use filters to get the Daphnia into a small volume of water, then pour them out into a petri disk, place on a scanner an hit scan. The image it produces is surprisingly clear, enough to measure each individual with fairly high accuracy. The whole process is pretty fast and the Daphnia are back in their original containers in less than a minute.

  7. A couple of tricks I’ve used frequently over the years are:

    1. To tag individual small flowers I use tags cut from coloured electrical insulating tape. A length of tape is stuck to a plastic surface, individual reference numbers written across the tape, then the tape is sliced with a scalpel to make the individual tags. To tag the flowers I peel off one of the sections of tape and hold it with the sticky side adhering to the tips of thumb and forefinger. Holding the flower still with the left hand the tape tag is then wrapped around the flower pedicel and the tape tag closed so that the adhesive surfaces come together. It’s important to leave a gap between the tag and the pedicel but that becomes second nature with practice. I tagged literally thousands of flowers this way during my PhD and the tags proved very resilient – I was finding them, with adhesive surfaces still stuck together, for at least 3 years after they had been employed. Could be used for anything that tagging for just a season or two.

    2. The standard way to take pollen samples from pollinators is to use small squares of gel stained with fuchsin red, which are dabbed on the pollinator’s body, placed on a microscope slide and then melted onto the slide, covered, and then viewed under a microscope. The collection part is a bit fiddly and time consuming, especially the melting of the gel in the field. However if all you want is a quantitative assessment of the numbers of pollen grains of a distinct type, using Sellotape “Magic Tape” allows you to remove pollen from a standard area (we’ve usually used 5mm x 5mm squares of tape held with fine forceps) very quickly (ordinary Sellotape is too sticky in my experience). The tape squares are stuck to slides in the field and then viewed glass side upwards back in the lab (the tape is semi-opaque).

    On reflection I seem to have a bit of thing about sticky tape….. 🙂

  8. I have a few tricks when catching birds. For large gulls, we use noose carpets (1m square rubber mats with monofilament line to snare the birds). We often use bread (or if working at a fish plant, whatever the plant is processing that day) to bait the birds in. Occasionally, a few birds will just rush in and empty the carpet without getting caught. This is particularly problematic if there are starlings around, who will come and empty the carpet, but are too small to get caught (and aren’t gulls). So in addition to bread/fish/shrimp, I started spreading puffed wheat cereal, which tends to end up in the holes of the mat and is harder for the gulls to get, making them stick around longer, and more likely to get snared.

  9. I thought of a couple more…

    When you’ve obtained protists from nature and are trying to culture them in the lab, your culture medium may need to include some soil from the pond where you obtained them. Jill McGrady-Steed taught me this. No, I don’t know why it works. Protists just get “homesick”, I guess.

    If you’re trying to grab a small lizard like an anole by hand, the way to do it is to stand sideways to the lizard with your arm folded and your elbow pointed at it. Then snap your forearm out and snatch it. The idea is that you’re just moving one joint (your elbow); it’s quicker than trying to quickly reach with your whole arm from the shoulder down.

  10. Another trick related to capturing birds — I spent a summer helping a friend do targeted captures of a few select species, which involved setting up mist nets and herding/flushing the birds into the nets. Unfortunately, while some of those species flush and fly low along the ground (right into the nets; we liked those species) others tend to flush up and then horizontally towards cover — right up and over the nets! The trick? Recognizing that most birds are weary of an attack from above (e.g., from a larger bird that’s already in flight) I suspected that any surprise from above would send them horizontally away from the object, and not up. By throwing just about anything (approximately hawk sized) up in the air, we were able to get birds heading straight towards the nets. Our capture rates went way up after that 🙂

  11. I’ve heard something like this is the basis for a useful trick for killing houseflies by hand. Supposedly (I’ve no idea if this is true), when a fly is disturbed its first move is to fly straight up off of whatever surface it was sitting on. So if you clap your hands just above where the fly is sitting, it will fly straight up into your clapping hands and get squished. I’ve never had occasion to try it, so I can’t vouch for it.

  12. Pingback: Posterior samples | Sam Clifford

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