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How scientists are using LEGO to handle fragile insects

By Megan Hamilton     Feb 7, 2015 in Science
London - Living insects are fragile creatures and dead ones are even more so, especially if a century or two has passed and they are part of a museum collection.
This can pose a big problem for scientists who are trying to study the leggy creatures.
Fortunately, entomologist Steen Dupont and several of his colleagues have solved that problem by using the world's favorite toy. The scientists have published a rather unusual scientific paper in the journal ZooKeys regarding this very topic, The Guardian reports.
Dupont, who is a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, specializes in the Limacodidae, a family of moths. He also likes to build LEGO gadgets for fun. This latest project, however, shows that LEGOs can be used for more than child's play.
Insect museum specimens are the epitome of fragile, especially if they are 100+ years old and stuck through with a pin. An entomologist hoping to study these creatures has to use a bit of ingenuity to do so. There's a number of vice-like devices commercially available that are pricey and often not really capable of accommodating insects in all their various sizes, Dupont says. The LEGO gadgets he and is colleagues have devised get around these problems fairly easily.
"You can take them apart, put them in a bag, travel with them," he says, adding that the gadgets are as durable as any of the commercial models.
Not only are they easy to use and to acquire, they ensure a minimum amount of handling fragile specimens, thus keeping them safe from harm, Science Daily reports.
"We believe the LEGO insect specimen manipulators are a valuable addition to any entomologist's toolbox and that the use of any insect manipulator is in the interest of anyone dealing with valuable specimens as the actual handling of the specimen is reduced to a minimum during examination," Dupont says.
Once the insect is in position, with its pin placed securely in a tiny plug of foam or cork stuffed into a connector peg, a system of cogs makes it possible for the researcher to move the insect into any orientation, The Guardian reports.
"There's quite a few museums that are already interested," Dupont says. "When we show it to people they are quite excited. They find it fun," he said. "They are very optimistic about trying it."
And Dupont is still busy tinkering. He's working on a new design that will incorporate a mobile phone, thus allowing researchers an easy way to take a photo and send it on to a colleague.
"You can get a very, very good image without having to take the specimen to the microscope," he says.
Stinging rose caterpillars (Parasa indetermina) of the family Limacodidae.
Stinging rose caterpillars (Parasa indetermina) of the family Limacodidae.
Megan McCarty65 Wikimedia Commons
The moths that Dupont likes to study have cute and colorful caterpillars that are definitely in the "look-but-don't-touch" category, replete with stinging hairs, although their parents are generally harmless. Some of the caterpillars have earned the name "monkey slug" because they glide slowly along in a fashion similar to slugs, Butterflies of North America reports. They feed on woody and herbaceous plants and spend the winter in loose, oval cocoons. The adults are smallish to medium sized with stout, fuzzy bodies and are generally brown or yellowish in color.
The bizarre-looking monkey slug caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium).
The bizarre-looking monkey slug caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium).
By Jerry A. Payne [CC BY 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikime
More about Lego, Scientists, Insects, London, natural history museum of london
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