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.
Nail Polish and Ingenuity: 1
Fancy Pants Technology: 0
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