Gluing Yourself to a Live Crocodile and Other Mistakes

Scientists share the gross, scary, and often hilarious reality of doing experiments in the wild.

A Swainson's hawk in Oregon, photographed by a local conservationist (Jon Nelson / Flickr)

It was in Indonesia that Agata Staniewicz glued herself to a crocodile.

Over the last few days, biologists, ecologists, and other scientists have been sharing mistakes and mishaps they’ve made in the wilderness: in other words, their #fieldworkfails. They are wonderful. I’ve posted some below, but I also emailed some of the participants to find out more about their misadventures.

“I glued my finger to the croc while attaching a transmitter with an instant glue,” Staniewicz, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Bristol, told me. “And then [I] spent a couple of minutes carefully detaching my finger from the croc and trying to keep the transmitter fastened while the local fishermen watched and laughed.”

Rosie Woodroffe, a senior researcher at the Zoological Society of London, said that she was not the one who discovered the lion: Her new student did instead.

“I had a new student, a vet-turned-ecologist who was just starting her Ph.D.,” she wrote to me in an email. “I thought it was time for my student to try handling the animals without me present—she was a qualified vet after all—so the team set some padded leghold traps in among the houses at our research centre in Kenya, hoping to catch some jackals.”

At the time, her team was researching whether African wild dogs—an endangered species that had been suffering mass die-offs—were contracting rabies and canine distemper from local domestic dog populations. “We set out to take blood samples from a range of different carnivore species to see what diseases they had,” she said. Thus the jackal traps. Woodroffe continued:

I made sure [the new student] had the equipment she needed—including a catch pole to hold the jackals and sacks to put them in—then suggested she check the traps every three hours, starting straight after dinner.

I planned an early night, but around 9 p.m. there was a knocking at my door. It was my student asking me to come and help because we’d caught a lion. We drove up to the trap, and there it was, a big male, barely 50 meters from the nearest house. I was worried because he was caught in such a small trap and might get himself out or injure himself if we couldn't free him quickly. We had to work fast—fortunately we were equipped to trap hyaenas as well as jackals, and I had worked on lions previously, so we had both the experience and the dart gun needed to immobilise it and get it out of the trap. A problem was that the drugs we had were not concentrated enough for lions—after all, we were trying to catch animals about one-twentieth the size of a lion—so it took three darts to hold enough drugs to anaesthetise him.

I felt bad about it, and he was pretty grumpy by the time the third dart hit, but it was the only way to get him out of the trap. Having previously worked on lions in the same area, I knew how hard they usually were to catch, so I cannibalised two of our wild dog radio collars to make a collar for our friends at the lion project to follow him.

I am fond of these stories. Each one, even just in tweet form, provides a little shard of expert experience, and a reminder of how broad, globe-spanning, and sometimes farcical scientific work is. People named and observed large aquatic reptiles; biologists and zoologists studied how they live and how their bodies work. Then somebody accidentally glued herself to one.

What happened to Staniewicz’s crocodile, by the way?

“Sadly it seems like the glue was generally much better at attaching fingers than transmitters,” she said. “The croc lost it within 24 hours.”

Woodroffe’s lion, meanwhile, proved much harder to lose.

“The next day I could hear from his radio-signal that he was still hanging around the research station—indeed this turned out to be part of his regular range,” she said. “Many of the researchers liked to go running around the research station in the early morning and evening. I stopped doing this myself when I learned there was a lion in the area, but I never did convince my colleagues to do the same.”

I’ve posted some of my favorite tweets from the hashtag below. After years in the field, said Woodroffe, “we all have loads of stories like this.”