Scientists Share Wins, Epic Fails on Twitter

Studying wild animals may sound exotic and exciting, but #Fieldworkfails shows the gritty—sometimes hilarious—reality of field biology.

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A lion decides photographer Nick Nichols' camera is a chew toy.

It's 1973 and your truck just broke down in the middle of a game reserve nearly the size of Costa Rica. There are only three radios in the entire park—none of which you have—no airstrips or roads, and the spare part you need is a five-hour drive away. What do you do?

If you're Bobbi Jacob, then a 22-year-old game warden in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, you make the part you need from a wildebeest's intestines—and you remember to note the gut contents, for science.

Her story is one of many that researchers have been sharing this week on Twitter using the #fieldworkwin hashtag. It's an outgrowth of the previous week's #fieldworkfail stories about embarrassing or hilarious mistakes, all in the name of science.

"You were very much on your own out there," says Jacob. She knew that no one would be coming to help her and a game scout replace their truck's broken fan belt. But she remembered a conversation with one of the "old timers" who told her about building a pulley system using wildebeest intestines.

As luck would have it, there was a wildebeest nearby. So Jacob shot it, butchered the meat to distribute to the reserve's other rangers, took note of what it had eaten for the biologists, and then fashioned a fan belt from the animal's intestines.

"I wasn't very optimistic we would go very far," says Jacob. But they managed to make it to the village. "Nobody could believe it."

Only Human

It's easy to marvel at scientists' discoveries and overlook the fact that a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into those studies. The #fieldworkin and #fieldworkfail hashtags are showcasing scientists as people, says Aerin Jacob, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, and Bobbi's daughter. "These are the human experiences and the things you laugh about later."

A lot of the "wins" start out as potential fails. Like the time when @ehekkala ran out of cotton swabs while collecting crocodile blood samples.

Wild Things

Add wild animals into the mix, and the potential for wins, and fails, gets even better.

Conservationist Jonathan Kolby was leading a group of students through a Honduran rain forest in 2007 when he saw what looked like a Miles' robber frog (Craugastor milesi)—a little brown thing that researchers had declared extinct in the 1980s.

But Kolby, who has received support from National Geographic, needed to catch it first to confirm his suspicions. So, in front of an audience, he lunged into the swampy water only to come up with a handful of muck.

"I had [the students] wait there for about half an hour while I crawled around on my hands and knees trying to find this little frog," Kolby says. He came up empty-handed every time.

But when he went back to the same patch of forest a year later, there was the frog, perched on the very same rock the conservationist had first seen it on. "I thought I was hallucinating," he says.

"This time I took pictures of it first before I tried to catch it, so I had evidence that it existed," Kolby says. He was luckier this time around and was able to nab it for analysis: It was indeed a Miles' robber frog.

Off the Record

Once you spot the animal you've been looking for, getting the data or photograph you need is a whole other ballgame. Sometimes your images get photobombed.

And other times, they just bomb. An obstinate captive raven nearly brought photographer Vince Musi to tears last week when the bird refused to stand still for a picture. Musi, who shoots for National Geographic, ended up having to bribe the raven with sausages and fries.

The photographer has also been known to sing snippets of Frank Sinatra or Elvis Costello to get his more stubborn subjects to cooperate.

And then there are the animals that get a little too close for comfort.

Photographer Melissa Farlow was trying to get pictures of wild horses in South Dakota during a full moon, but the animals were too far away. She took a couple shots anyway, then decided to call it a night.

Farlow didn't realize that a wild horse had snuck up behind her to investigate what she was doing. "He was very ghostly and white and friendly," she says.

—With reporting by Maya Wei-Haas.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

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