“Never say ‘oops’. Always say ‘Ah, interesting.’” – Anonymous
The discovery of the world’s first antibiotic by Alexander Fleming was a fortuitous accident. Fleming was known to be brilliant but a bit of a slob, with a penchant for leaving bacterial cultures lying haphazardly around the lab. The story goes that one day, when he returned to the lab, he noticed that mold had blown in from an open window and colonized one of his staphylococci bacterial cultures, killing the Staphylococcus colonies closest to the mold. After some experimentation, he found that the mold, Penicillium, produced a bactericidal substance. And hence, from that first slovenly error, Penicillin was born.
Science is often considered to be a rigid pursuit, carried out by stern people in crisp white lab coats reliably repeating protocol after protocol in strict experimental fashion. At our best, and with a great deal of luck, some science actually works out that way. More often, science, especially in field-based subjects like ecology and geology, is full of blunders and misadventures. Sometimes, as Fleming found out, those blunders can be a way of introducing creativity to the process. Mistakes can be the foundation of discovery.
Over the past four years, I’ve been working as a biologist in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Among other things, I study bats, and a few of my most exciting bat findings have been the result of an accident. A momentary lapse in perfect technique, a breakdown of ritual. A slip in the protocol that definitely, definitely wasn’t supposed to happen.
In 2015, I was on a biodiversity survey in the remote reaches of the park with a handful of other scientists. Just before dusk I hurried down to where I’d set a bat mistnet across a wide stream. It was time to open it. Getting there required crossing the stream via a bank of wet, algae-covered rocks. Carrying gear in both hands and a small pack on my hip, I rushed across, the stream to my left and a deep pool to my right. A few steps in, my attention wavered, and I felt my rubber boot slip.
Instinctively, I jabbed the fiberglass net pole I was holding into the rocks to try and catch my balance. With a crack it broke in half, and I tumbled into the pool. I dragged myself out and blundered across to open the net in my soggy rubber boots.
Dripping wet, I hunkered down in some bushes from which I could see the whole net, allowing me to check it quickly without stomping around and scaring anything off. I took a deep breath and collected myself. As darkness fell, I felt rising panic as I realized that I had the expedition leader’s bat detector in my bag. The bag that was resting on my hip, saturated to the core.
I leapt up and rushed over to the stream, looking to see whether the expedition leader, who had passed by earlier, was still nearby. Then I saw a tiny flicker in the far corner of the net. I shone my spotlight on it: a bird. It had been in a sagging corner of the far, bottom bag of the net, and I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting in the bushes. This corner had been just hidden from view by a tree branch coming off the streambank.
I waded through the stream and realized that it wasn’t a bird at all – it was the most brilliantly patterned bat I had ever seen. This was none other than Welwitsch’s myotis (Myotis welwitschii), one of the most beautiful bats in Africa and a species that I’d dreamt about seeing alive. I splashed over to the bat and carefully removed it from the net. It was a new record for the park, the first M. welwitschii ever found in Gorongosa. And had I not taken my little swim and had a moment of panic about a sodden piece of expensive equipment (which was fine, in the end), I would never have leapt up in panic and noticed that tiny hidden corner of the net. In all likelihood the bat would have chewed or wiggled its way out and flitted like a whisper of smoke into the black night. I would never have known it was there at all.
Another night, having had little luck, I decided to try something new. There was a road that passed through wooded grassland, and it looked like a great flyway. I wanted to span a gap between two trees that flanked the road, so I decided to stack two nets. As I opened the nets, I realized that my poles were bending inward at the top and causing the top net to sag. I tightened the guy lines to coerce the poles into standing upright. No luck. I tightened them some more. And a little bit more. And a little… crack! One of my fiberglass poles snapped right at the guy line, bringing the whole assembly to the ground.
It was my last pole. Desperate, I taped its ragged ends together and haphazardly propped the net back up. I had no tension, and the bottom net was laying half on the ground, but it would have to do. When I checked the net half an hour later, my hopes dragging almost as much as that bottom net, I found a long-eared figure flapping on the ground, caught in the part of the net that had been laying on the dirt. It was a large-eared whispering bat (Nycteris macrotis), another new species for the park. Whispering bats are known to land on surfaces to scoop up prey, so maybe there had been a particularly enticing insect trapped among the fallen folds. It was sloppy mistnetting, alright, but I haven’t seen another N. macrotis since.
The final night of the survey, exhausted, my equipment beaten and abused by harsh weather and confused technicians, I set up my last two, barely useable nets, both of them sagging against broken trammel lines and feathering at the edges of gaping holes. It was quiet. A few hours after dark, feeling resigned, I decided to take the nets down. I dismantled the first and trekked up the road to the second. As I shone my spotlight on the net, I saw a perfect bat silhouette, stretched out like the quintessential black bat stickers they sell on Halloween. My mind skipped a beat – that’s not normally how a bat in a net looks. Suddenly I made sense of it – a small bat had tried to fly through a hole in the net. But the tiny claws on its wings had hooked onto the feathering edges of the hole, tenuously trapping the creature in place. One flap of his wings, I knew, and he’d be gone. I held my breath, crept up as quickly as I could, and grabbed it gently. The net slipped right off his wings before I’d even touched the threads. With its large ears and mousy face, the bat was instantly recognizable. A Botswanan long-eared bat (Laephotis botswanae). It was the first record for the park, and only the second L. botswanae ever recorded in the entire country of Mozambique. An exceedingly rare find, all because of a hole in the net and an overambitious bat.
His mistake, or mine? I’m not sure, but as a scientist, I’ve come to be grateful for the occasional error.