The Gremlins That Mess Up Your Field Experiments

Inspired by comments on a previous post: what are your best stories about “gremlins” messing up your field experiments?

The only story of my own that I have about this is from my undergrad days, when a classmate and I did an observational study of seed caching by chickadees. We were having problems with grey squirrels frequenting the feeder and disturbing the chickadees, thereby preventing us from getting many observations. It was suggested to us that we use a squirt gun loaded with a mild ammonia solution to scare the squirrels away. Hiding behind a shrub with a squirt gun in case any squirrels came by is the closest I’ll ever come to hunting. πŸ™‚

Speaking of squirrels, one of my grad students had problems with ground squirrels stealing the flags he was using to mark plants. If I recall correctly, it took him some time and effort to come up with a way of marking plants that the ground squirrels would ignore.

My undergrad advisor once lost a replicate of an experiment on tadpoles in rockpools when a duck ate all the tadpoles out of one of the pools. Just one pool, fortunately, which I thought was kind of odd. Why wouldn’t ducks eat all the tadpoles out of all the pools?

Of course, unless yours is a very remote field site, the worst gremlins often are Homo sapiens. In grad school, a labmate of mine doing a mesocosm experiment on mosquito larvae lost the whole experiment when (if I recall correctly) a city worker added mosquitofish to every one of her tanks. I assume adding mosquitofish to standing water was part of the local mosquito control policy. Next summer she repeated the experiment–after first moving her mesocosms off campus to a secluded area in a university forest.

Gremlins can be abiotic too. When I was an undergrad the field experiment I was sampling for my honors project was destroyed by a huge (once-in-a-decade) storm. Not so unusual. But I know of grad students who work on coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico whose experiments involve bolting large metal enclosures to the sea floor. They hold their breath every time a hurricane goes through (sometimes in vain–they’ve had experiments completely demolished, even in very deep water).

So, what are your best stories about “gremlins” messing up your field experiments? 1000 Internet Points for the best story, and for the story involving the rarest or most unusual gremlin. πŸ™‚

p.s. The subject and title of this post (capitalization and all) is my attempt to mess with regular reader Margaret Kosmala, who tries to guess the post author from the title. Did I fool you into thinking Meg wrote this post, Margaret? πŸ™‚

30 thoughts on “The Gremlins That Mess Up Your Field Experiments

  1. More directly on topic: as a PhD student I had deer remove plastic tent pegs that were firmly hammered 8 inches into the ground to mark plants. They gripped them with their front teeth and yanked them out, then threw them over their shoulder. Apparently for amusement as they didn’t eat those plants.

    I’ve also had people remove muslin bags, used for plant breeding system experiments, from flower heads in an effort to “tidy up” a site. Though the best example of this was when one of my former PhD students was working in the High Andes of Peru and bags were removed by women from the local community. They were later seen wearing them as handy pouches for carrying their bits and pieces. A plea to the local community council stopped the practice though.

  2. Nope, not fooled. Sorry. I actually didn’t even notice the all caps. I did pause a moment, and think it might have been Meg since you’re lab-based, but she wrote the last post, and she rarely (ever?) has two in a row. Also, you pretty much do all the silly posts.

    We regularly have camera traps destroyed by elephants, hyenas, insects, and rain. Baboons like to press buttons and sometimes trip the cameras to video mode instead of photo mode (which then eats up all the memory).

    In Minnesota, I had small mammals (probably rabbits) eat about a third of my experiment one summer. So I had to cage all the plants the next year. Of course, big storms knock the cages over.

    I know a lot of folks — especially in the warmer parts of the US — lost a year’s worth of fieldwork in the big droughts of 2011. Hard to do anything with plants when they’re all dead.

    • I’ll cop to giving myself away by trying to make it look as if Meg had posted two days in a row. But it is not true that I do all the silly posts! Indeed, Meg herself is the author of by far our most popular silly post ever. πŸ™‚

      On another note, I’ll bet when a camera trap gets destroyed by an elephant, it *really* gets destroyed. And I like imagining baboons messing with the cameras and taking videos of themselves. πŸ™‚

      Your stories also bring to mind the video clips you sometimes see in nature documentaries, where a video camera disguised as a rock or a turtle or something gets recognized by the lions or bears or whatever extremely-dangerous animal is being filmed. You see an extreme close-up of a nose or eye. Then suddenly the image starts tumbling. Then it goes dark. πŸ™‚

      • I remember that the lab where I did my MSc bought ethanol that was not drinkable. I don’t really know what this means, but I doubt that this would stop students whose experiments have just been destroyed by gremlins.

    • To stay in the pitfall trap ambiance, I’ve had a Bornean bearded pig repeatedly drinking all the salted water (used as a preservative) of one or two samples every night, for 5 days in a row (always the same pitfall traps out of 180!).
      Meanwhile, 5 km away from the field site, one of his brothers managed to enter the lab of the field centre and tore up the packets of salt that were stored there, trampling on some other equipment.

  3. A fellow student was doing an experiment on nitrogen intake per termite. Took a colony, divided it into 10 groups of 100 workers, and then carefully measured food intake and excretion. Near the end discovered that workers resort to cannibalism if the queen is not around and most of the workers were missing!

  4. A famous anecdote of some U.K. bat biologists involves the police being called to investigate a mysterious box of gadgetry mounted underneath a bridge. Going on the assumption that it was an improvised explosive device, police cordoned off the road and the thousand-dollar-plus bat detector was detonated by the bomb squad!

  5. Fun!
    Murphy’s law ensures that there are plenty of gremlins and thus examples to choose from.
    Colyear Dawkins (who did a lot of work in Ugandan forests) used to say that no field based monitoring study could be totally “safe from monkeys and small boys” (his gremlins).
    I worked with a PhD student who lost a year of research when his plots (in Indonesian Borneo) burned. He swtiched study to provide a unique (first hand account) of fire impacts in wet tropical forest … Though possibly a more valuable study it was a major blow at the time (a year lost and a total change in direction) – see Journal of Ecology. 2005, 93:191-201.
    I know researchers who lost their plots (and the tall markers) under more than a meter of volcanic ash on Krakatau.
    Working with camera traps provides lots of fun insights into the gremlins, luckily modern cameras are tough and durable … here is a blog about finding teeth marks on one of our cameras …
    and here is one where the camera survived an elephant’s obvious curiosity:
    Best wishes

    • Hi Douglas,

      apparently your camera traps are built of sterner stuff than Margaret’s! Or perhaps Margaret hasn’t told us about the cameras that managed to survive the elephants… πŸ™‚

      And now that two people have reported “volanic eruption” as a gremlin, that doesn’t seem nearly so unusual. In fact, now I’m worrying about a tiny in-lab volcano destroying my microcosms. πŸ™‚

  6. I had some experimental invertebrate exclosures destroyed by snow, and marmots seemed to like removing cotton cloths and pieces of plastic mash sealing “minicontainers” (a small plastic tube containing leaf litter to measure decomposition rates) that I was using a couple of years ago. Incidentally, red deer like chewing on plastic brushflags…although that doesnt hurt the experiment.

    I was also involved in a study on great tit (Parus major) behaviour. We used taxidermy models of song thrushes and sparrow hawks, along with tape recordings, to increase their perceived abundances. On returning to the song thrushes, most of them were trashed by the local thrush that saw the model as a competitor! We ended up having to put a small cage around the model to protect it.

  7. Pingback: Friday links: the Silwood story, advice for (and from) grad students, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Let’s see, over the years I’ve had:
    – a 2+ m boa constrictor get tangled up in bird exclosure netting. That was a fun one to get out!
    – collared peccaries run through and tear up bird exclosure netting
    – someone’s hunting dog get caught inside bird exclosure netting (mind you this was 11 miles downstream of the nearest settlement in a remote roadless area in Central America)
    – collared peccaries unearth and chew up pitfall traps full of ethanol
    – white-tailed deer eat birds out of mist nets (so much for deer being herbivores!)
    – cows, deer, and people run through and destroy mist nets

    But the absolute best (=worst) was the station manager who ran off with my several thousand dollars worth of station fees, leaving me in the above-mentioned remote field site – in a country where my language skills were still minimal – with no food, drinking water, or gas for the generator. Or transportation out of there for myself or my assistant, let alone all my experimental equipment. And staff who hadn’t been paid in several months and were ready to bail. Oh, and meanwhile, I had two new field assistants coming down, one of whom was delayed when she had to evacuate her city for a hurricane – which I didn’t find out for several days, because the phone only worked when the generator was running. I pulled through that one by the skin of my teeth, thanks to a well-connected local field assistant and a general in the national army who tracked down the station manager and sent her back to the station.

    No volcanoes, though. Yet.

  9. I don’t know if we have time for all the gremlins that messed up our lab’s field experiments. However, my two favorites are:

    1) the bear that ate the rain gauge because someone put vegetable oil in it to keep the scanty precip from evaporating so fast. We switched to mineral oil. Bears don’t find that so tasty, apparently.
    2) the park ranger who disagreed with any human activity taking place in a Research Natural Area and would thus very carefully remove and stack our enclosures next to the trail. We, of course, would grumpily put them back. We went through a few rounds of this before we figured out what was going on.

    On the other hand, we also had reverse gremlins. It was guaranteed that if we lost something one month, we would find it again at some point, usually the next month. This worked for cameras, binocs, and even an earring(!).

  10. Ok, this example is not from biology, but physicists do ‘field’ experiments too…a friend was working on a project that involved a telescope being shipped to Texas. The shipment went missing. After a manhunt they found the trailer with the telescope, fortunately undamaged. The full story went something like the driver went on a alcohol, drug, stripper bing and ‘lost’ the shipment for payment…not realizing quite how valuable the contents were. Article here:
    though sadly without all the sordid details…

  11. I do urban field work in vacant lots. My first summer I was trying out a trap that included a vertical 10-ft PVC pipe and one of them was run over by city mowers. That gremlin obviously aimed to take it down, there was no way it had fallen in the grass beforehand.

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