Science Fail: Mouse Lemurs Misbehavin’

“What could go wrong? My study uses superb experimental design.” The soothing thoughts shallowly lapped at the 3rd year graduate student’s mind as her pessimistic inner monologue was wondering if the data she was collecting could even begin to answer the questions that were keeping her up at night. Those unnerving thoughts had recently begun to surreptitiously infiltrate even the deepest recesses of her brain. Now she was being kept awake for different reasons other than deep-seated scientific curiosity. It would not be long before she would discover that the naughty mouse lemurs in her study would routinely make a habit out of refusing to eat their food, the technology used to measure body temperature would fail in epic fashion, and the data she would be so painstakingly collecting might be too noisy to interpret.

Nearly one year ago, jittery from the anticipation of finally having data to canoodle with, I downloaded body temperature profiles from the collars my mouse lemurs had been wearing for the past 2 ½ months. Growing increasingly dumb-founded, as validated by my gaping jaw, I experienced my first major science fail.

“What could go wrong?” This question every graduate student has faced at least once in his or her career. Suspicion’s ironic cousin. Failures happen all the time in scientific research. Except most of the time scientists don’t want to expose our dirtiest secret. Science isn’t perfect. Allow me to enlighten you. (As a refresher for motivation behind this study, see a recent post—the last paragraph should suffice for refreshment purposes).

My study began beautifully, as meticulously planned. Every morning (and I mean every morning. Weekends have mornings, too!) for nearly 5 months straight, I transported my diet-prepping butt to the Lemur Center to concoct diets for the fuzzies. This involved weighing out primate chow (i.e. pellets o’ nutrition that mouse lemurs can’t wait to stick their tiny faces into. Seriously. They have opposable thumbs, yet choose to eat their food by dunking their fuzzy kissers into it. I imagine a tiny blueberry pie-eating contest, except it’s not blueberry pie. It’s pulverized primate pellets. And it’s not gluttonous Americans at a Fourth of July celebration. It’s adorable mouse lemurs boasting delightfully crumb-y beards). Got a mental image? Here. This might help.

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that's what mouse lemurs look like...minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that’s what mouse lemurs look like…minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Weighing out primate chow requires precision. I use a super-fancy scale, which sold to me for 10 whole dollars, to make sure I get each diet to within a hundredth of a gram of the required amount. This precision is not limited to the chow. My lucky lemurs also get served (quite literally on a silver platter, I might add) a mélange of fruits and veggies that must be weighed out. Think this sounds easy? I thought that, too.

Then I learned. 

Banana is notorious for its opposition to allow itself to be weighed to the hundredth gram. This evil fruit gloms onto itself (and everything around it…gloves, measuring spoons, jeans. Nothing is safe from its greedy reaches!), and refuses to hit that sweet spot on the scale. Banana, I will eat you every day for breakfast as a result of your defiance!!! Corn, on the other hand, is laid-back. Super chill. I love corn. I won’t be eating corn for breakfast any time soon. I have been known to literally rejoice on corn day at the Lemur Center by doing a little jig in my isolated kitchen away from the judging eyes of Lemur Center staff. (Confession: I don’t really think they would judge me. They probably love corn day, too!)

Once diets are prepped and ready to go, you would think that the mouse lemurs are dying to down on the meal you so lovingly prepared for them. Wrong, again. Sure, you have some animals that will gobble up anything you put in front of their chubby little faces, but then there are the picky-eaters in the bunch. (You know who you are, Joe Pye Weed!). This little set back serves to single-handedly destroy the entire experiment. How can you test whether diet influences torpor patterns if said diet is not consumed?

Then comes the issue of weighing the animals. The weighing procedure really gives the animals a chance to display their charming personalities, but also poses the risk of hindering any sort of forward progress. Since my interest lies in the fact that animals fed a certain diet will torpor longer than their counterparts, it is essential to keep disturbances minimal. Then this happens.

Every Friday morning at 9 am, Erin and I tip-toe silently into the room to weigh the animals. Monty, sensing our presence, inevitably vocalizes his little head off in a series of high-pitched shrieks and chatters. This little jerk (ironically, my favorite animal of the bunch. His tail is half the length as all the others) thus manages to “wake up” his buddies and alert them of our intentions, while his adorably disfigured tail is spinning like a helicopter rotor blade gone rogue. Thanks, Monty. Is this what I get for making you my favorite?!?

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

And here’s the kicker and, notably, a brilliant demonstration of an epic science fail. My study animals had been fitted with pre-programmed collars to record body temperature at hourly intervals. The study was designed so that the animals would be wearing their necklaces from mid-November until the end of January. So. Much. Data.

Such. Incorrect. Assumptions. Here’s a little tip. Assumptions in science? Bad. Very, very bad.

Here I am merrily plugging along assuming everything is working flawlessly, spared from the knowledge that anything was amiss. At least for the time being. Flash forward to me sitting at the dining room table downloading my data, while my yapper is the rivaling the size of Texas. Not only did my collars lose the will to keep recording halfway through the study (December 10th at 10:01 p.m. is the exact time and date, in case you were wondering), but 2 of my 10 collars didn’t work at all! Zero data.

I’m chalking this one up to “gaining experience” and/or “life lesson learned”.  And, in a demonstration of extreme resilience, planning my next failed experiment.

This is science, folks. It ain’t perty.

But stay tuned. There is a happy ending!

It’s a jungle out there!


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