Vandals!

It is one of the major challenges in field ecology, although it is not more than a practical question: how can I leave my scientifical equipment out in the field?

You want to measure soil water content during the whole growing season, but don’t want to travel up the mountain every day?
You are on a hunt for mammals that are very hard to see and you want to leave a camera trap in the forest?
You put seeds of your favorite alien species in the soil and want to put some sticks to mark the plot?

There are plenty occasions that field ecologists have no other option than to leave very expensive (economically and/or emotionally) material in the field, unprotected an vulnerable for our worst enemies: vandals!

It happens more often than good for science: vandals take away your equipment, damage it, destroy it or in any other way they ruin your experiment. I know a story of an experiment high in the mountains in Northern Scandinavia, on a place where nobody ever comes. The small sticks that marked the experiment where all carefully collected and put on a pile. It is not less than a horror story for every field ecologist, because it could imply everything from a small delay to starting over from the very beginning.

All my own plots were still intact last time I checked, and most of them should be save, but as soon as someone starts mowing the plots closest to the city, the experiment is doomed. And save in my office in Belgium, I have no way to save them if needed.

I read a fascinating article about this issue (more easy info here). It is a (real) scientific publication about dummy boxes that looked like expensive scientific equipment. In order to find a way to avoid damage by vandals, the scientists attached 3 different messages: a neutral one (please don’t disturb), a very aggressive one (something like: we are watching you, police will find you if you mess with this box!) and a more personal approach, associated with a cute picture of a squirrel to melt the heart of even the meanest vandal.

As you may have guessed, the cute squirrel won the contest, as the least contact with vandals was recorded (most of the time moving of the box, but also opening, damaging or even stealing of all that precious research material!). Maybe more surprising is the fact that the aggressive sign had the least impact.

Scientific equipment

After: Clarin BM, Bitzilekis E, Siemer BM, Goerlitz HR (2013) Personal messages reduce vandalism and theft of unattended scientific equipment. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12132

Moral of the story: if you ask vandals kindly to stop vandalizing, you have the highest chance they’ll listen.

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2 Responses to Vandals!

  1. Om nachtmerries van te krijgen! Geen back-up mogelijk in het veld 😦

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