Be Nice.

©Maki Naro

You may remember a little while back I reported the photographic capture of a rare jungle cat through the use of automatic camera "traps" left in the field. In the post, I briefly mentioned the challenges that scientists face in leaving these monitoring devices unattended—namely theft, vandalism, or tampering. Luckily, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany are working on ways to keep people from touching delicate scientific equipment.

Published last week in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, a team led by Markus Clarin and Holger Goerlitz discovered that it pays to be nice. The researchers, working closely with Munich park officials, built 60 dummy equipment kits and distributed them in public parks. The kits were made from plastic tool boxes, and featured blinking LED lights and an antenna. Affixed to each of the boxes was one of three labels meant to deter tampering.

  • A personal label, featuring text that read, "Part of my thesis – Please do not touch – Please call me if you have any questions and would like to know more." and a picture of a baby squirrel.
  • A neutral label, reading, "Part of an experiment – Please do not touch – For information ... " and a warning symbol.
  • A threatening label, which read, "'Part of an experiment – Every theft will be reported to the police! – For information ... GPS Monitored!"

At the end of the experiment, Clarin and his group had only good things to report. First, despite their visibility, very few of the dummy kits had been tampered with. Of those few, the kits with a personal labels were tampered with 40% less than the boxes with neutral or threatening labels.

Though the study also showed that it may be possible to be too nice. A bomb report was made to the police when a mischievous passer-by took one of the kits to a beer garden with them, and left it there. Whoops.