Unusual uses of technology for ecological studies

Last year, I attended the defense talk of Jasmine Crumsey, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University. Her PhD dissertation focused on the impacts of exotic earthworms on soil carbon dynamics. Her work is notable because of what she found (exotic earthworms alter carbon storage, but the exact effect differs among species depending on their burrowing pattern), but also because of how she found it: she worked with radiologists from the University of Michigan medical school to reconstruct and quantify earthworm burrow systems. How cool is that?*

Legend: The Xray CT with one of Jasmine’s mesocosms in it, rather than a human. (Photo credit: Jasmine Crumsey)

This made me think of my post on unusual suppliers of research equipment (the winner being the use of vibrators by pollination biologists), but it’s on a whole different scale in terms of cost and technology!

Do you know of other examples of people using very fancy, very expensive equipment for an “off-label” use in ecological research? Have you done this for your own research?


*Jasmine was not the first person to use this approach – see her Ecology paper for references to others who did this before her. This was just the first time I’d heard of this.

**You can also learn more about Jasmine’s research and see video of her electroshocking to get worms out of their burrows by watching this video, starting around 9:20.

7 thoughts on “Unusual uses of technology for ecological studies

  1. We use tampons to feed parasitoid flies. We needed a device that would sop up a lot of nectar, that we could easily hang from the ceiling of the cage, that the parsitoid flies could land on and drink the nectar from. A lab full of women quickly decided that the perfect vessel would be tampons. This is all the more spectacular given the food we feed the flies is humming bird nectar and therefore always bright red. Submitting the expenses for several extra large boxes of tampons is always entertaining (and usually gets rejected the first go-round).

  2. So, that looks like a trash can full of dirt in that CT scanner, yes?

    That’s pretty good, but I think a colleague of mine has some CT scanner stories that will top it…

    • We use CT to look inside fossils all the time. My friend Chris Brochu used a Boeing nose cone industrial CT to scan the skull of Sue, the T rex at the Field Museum, in 1998. We are using micro CT now to look inside extinct mammal ears, amphibian braincases, and the insides of fossil horse teeth, and one of the ecology/evolution students used it to count beetle larvae inside beans.
      A colleague in geoscience has been using an electron microprobe to sample conodont teeth to determine how the teeth were held in the soft tissue.

      • “My friend Chris Brochu used a Boeing nose cone industrial CT to scan the skull of Sue, the T rex at the Field Museum, in 1998”

        Aaaand we have a thread winner! At least if victory is determined by “how expensive is the equipment”.🙂

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