Imagine you’re a behavioral ecologist. You want to know how ants find their way back to the nest after foraging. One possibility is that they count their steps. How would you test that?
Why, you’d glue stilts to the ants’ legs, thereby lengthening their strides. If they’re counting their steps, they’ll overshoot the nest on the way back from foraging. Which is exactly what happens.
You’d also do some other experiments to test alternative hypotheses, of course. For instance, blindfolding ants to test whether they navigate by memorizing visual cues.
Those are pretty funny experiments. Putting ants on tiny stilts is just funny. Putting tiny blindfolds on ants is just funny. The stilt experiment is also very clever. The recipe for designing an experiment to test a mechanism is to mess with the mechanism, in such a way that the messed-up mechanism will fail in a predictable fashion. Ideally, you want to mess with the mechanism in such a way that you don’t mess with any other mechanism. That often takes cleverness. For instance, if ants are counting their steps, your first instinct might be to try to mess with their counting. But how would you make an ant miscount? I don’t think you can (can you?). So you have to figure out some other way to mess with their pedometer mechanism. You could move the nest while the ant is out foraging, so that an ant that’s counting its steps will either over- or undershoot the nest, depending on whether the nest has been moved closer or farther away. But moving the nest would mess with several mechanisms that ants might use to navigate. I think it would’ve taken me a long time to hit on the idea of putting ants on stilts, if I ever hit on it at all, so that just strikes me as tremendously clever.
This old post compiles a few other examples of study methods and experimental designs that seem very clever to Meghan and I. Using a CT scanner to reconstruct earthworm burrow systems. Using vibrators to mimic buzz pollination. Putting dung beetles in a planetarium to test whether they navigate by the Milky Way. Some of them are pretty funny too.
What are your favorite examples of clever or funny experimental designs in ecology?