At our recent family reunion, several of the kids (whose father says with pride, “Our kids are such nerds.”) discovered some tadpoles at the edge of the lake. They spent half their swimming time on the last afternoon catching the little critters and studying them. I assume the focus of their research was observing the stages tadpoles go through as they change into frogs.
I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been. It might have given me an opportunity to finish something I started a long time ago.
As a freshman in high school, I was much more interested in English and history than in science. So when I needed a project for the science fair, I didn’t exactly embark on any cutting-edge research. My plan was to capture a batch of tadpoles and preserve one in formaldehyde each day to show the progression of steps from tadpole to frog.
The ditch beside the road into our yard, filled with water from the spring rains, was a handy tadpole habitat. I scooped up an assortment of the unsuspecting critters and poured them into a gallon pickle jar. Then I fished out the first victim—er, research subject—and dropped it into a little jar of formaldehyde.
At this point, my Uncle Ernie intervened with a suggestion. Tadpoles kept in a pickle jar might not survive long enough to take their turns being sacrificed on the altar of science. He proposed putting them back out in the ditch in a sort of live trap. He helped me build one by tacking window screening around a peach crate, leaving the top open so I could easily fish out my research subjects. We settled it into the muddy ditch, and I dumped the tadpoles into it.
The next morning I went out to select the second volunteer to give its all to science.
The box was right where we had put it. It was still full of water, the screen around it was secure, and it didn’t appear to have been disturbed. But there wasn’t a single tadpole in it.
Apparently somebody, most likely a raccoon, had discovered the tempting tadpole buffet—not unlike the lobster tank at a seafood restaurant—and enjoyed a feast. My science experiment had turned into somebody else’s fine dining experience. I wonder if Charles Darwin ever had that problem?
I don’t remember why it wasn’t possible to simply catch a new batch of research subjects and start over. Maybe whoever ate my project also wiped out most of the remaining population. At any rate, I had to ditch the tadpole project and find something else for the science fair. Perhaps motivated by a desire to identify the culprit who ate my tadpoles, I did an exhibit on fingerprints instead.
Maybe I should have written up the experiment anyway, displaying the empty box, the one lonely pickled tadpole, and the sad story. After all, there are lessons to be learned from failed experiments as well as successful ones. And I did learn an important scientific principle from this experience. I now understand why, until they are ready to publish, scientists find it so important to keep a lid on their research.