As Simple as Connecting the Dots: Nail Polish, Lice and Brown Mouse Lemurs

Near the house I grew up in stood a giant, sprawling Boxelder tree.  The proximity of the tree to our house meant that we had a constant, overflowing supply of boxelder bugs.  In the spring and fall these creatures would congregate to form a black and orange blanket covering the Southern wall of our house.  As kids we collected them, tying string around their middle and keeping them as pets. One fall we decided to see how many of our little friends came back the next year, so we marked them with large yellow dots of acrylic paint. To our disappointment, no bright yellow bugs appeared in the spring. Our Father suggested to us that they probably didn’t have that long of a life span; sticking their wings together with paint probably didn’t help either.

I hadn’t thought of this early foray into population tracking for years until I saw a Scienceshot on ScienceNOW

It seems that researchers were having difficulty tracking the movements and social interactions of brown mice lemurs, despite live trapping and micro chipping them. Finally a graduate student named Sarah Zohdy decided to try a different and less technical approach. She placed dots of different color nail polish on the lice that inhabited the captured lemurs. Next she watched and recorded when and where these color-coded lice turned up on other lemurs. Because the lice are species-specific and only spread through physical contact, she could begin to paint a picture of where the lemurs went as well as who they interacted with.

Ms. Zohdy presented her findings at the Annual Meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in early January (2012). She learned that the brown mouse lemurs, supposedly solitary creatures, ventured far from their homes to interacted with other lemurs. Not surprisingly, this interaction increases during mating season. Interestingly, Ms. Zohdy only saw evidence of lice exchange between male lemurs captured in the course of this study.

In this case, the low-tech solution actually yielded more information than the high-tech micro chipping approach. The lesson here is simple, sometimes technology isn’t the answer.

The score:

Nail Polish and Ingenuity:   1

Fancy Pants Technology:    0

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Kelly Grooms

Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing and knitting. A black belt, she enjoys practicing karate with her daughter as well as hiking, biking and camping.


  1. I didn’t use to like nail polish. But I can see its uses.

    @ Linda: Having an engineer education at bottom, I have to disagree as a matter of course. But also because the fact is that no one pays for overthinking.

    The difference between simple and more elaboration can be for durability, or simply because customers chooses to have something akin to nail polish on the product.

  2. Thanks Linda. And, yes, simple is best but you have to agree a bit more technical finesse might have meant a better fate for our boxelder bugs. A paint brush and yellow paint was a bit heavy handed.

  3. Hi Torbjörn,
    Personally I have nothing against nail polish, but this article did make me see it in a bit of a different light. Since I am married to an engineer (as Linda is well aware), I agree that there are times that something less than just a simple solution is called for., and I am thankful that there are people who love to analyze and think about things that I’d rather not.
    Different people just approach things differently. As a light-hearted example: The optimist sees a glass as half full, the pessimist sees it as half empty, and the engineer sees it as twice as big as it needs to be.
    Ms. Zohdy decided to approach the problem from a completely different angle: Don’t track the lemurs, keep track of their lice!

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