Science bloopers

Even scientists goof up sometimes! These Nat Geo Explorers share some of their wildest slipups and hardest fails.

Lion stare-off 

THE SCIENTIST: Thandiwe Mweetwa
COOL JOB: Lion biologist
THE LOCATION: Zambia, a country in Africa

“It was my first time seeing lions up close—three males. A team member shot one with tranquilizer darts, putting him to sleep so we could put a radio collar on his neck. I walked behind as my team moved the nearly 500-pound lion on a stretcher. But suddenly the lion sat up and growled. The darts had malfunctioned, and now the lion was turned toward me. For two minutes I had a staring contest with an unhappy lion! Finally the lion lost interest and stumbled away.

“Sometimes accidents happen, and that day I was lucky to be with such a calm team. Now I know how to stay cool in scary situations.”


THE SCIENTIST: Jonathan Kolby
COOL JOB: Conservationist
THE LOCATION: Cusuco National Park in Honduras, a country in Central America

“I was leading students through the jungle when I spotted a small, bumpy, brown frog sitting on a rock. I suspected it might be special so I lunged to catch it, thinking, ‘Easy—I’m a frog-catcher!’ 

“I opened my fist … and showed the students a handful of mud. How could I have missed? Why didn’t I snap a photo first to show other scientists? I desperately crawled around in the mud for an hour while the students yawned. Eventually I gave up. 

“The next year I returned to that spot—and found a frog on the very same rock. This time I took a photo first, then I caught it! Turns out it was special: a Miles’ robber frog, which had been declared extinct decades ago. The fail turned out to be a delayed win!”

Swab the poop deck

COOL JOB: Marine biologist
THE LOCATION: Off the coast of Sri Lanka, a country in South Asia

“I was on a boat photographing a blue whale when I spotted strange, brick-red lumps pop up to the surface of the ocean. I leaned over to get a sample: It was whale poop! Poop is useful to scientists because it can tell a lot about the animal it came from, including what it has eaten.

“As I moved to put the poo in a jar, our boat hit a wave. The gunk spilled all over my hands, legs, shirt, shorts—even spraying my face! I washed myself off but stank for the rest of the day. Thankfully we prepare for accidents like this by collecting two samples, so we already had a full jar—plenty of poop to work with!”

Helping hand

THE SCIENTIST: Agustín Fuentes
COOL JOB: Biological anthropologist
THE LOCATION: Indonesia, a country in Southeast Asia

“It was nighttime, and I was lost in the jungle. I had decided to chase a rare maroon leaf monkey off of the trail for hours, forgetting to grab a buddy or notice where I was going. I started to panic: I realized I could be lost for days.

“Soon I heard crackling branches and rustling leaves—something big was coming. It was an orangutan, which I knew could be aggressive. I was too scared to move. But the ape offered her hand. That’s when I recognized her as a formerly captive orangutan we knew well. Holding my hand, she guided me back to camp, only about 15 minutes away.

“Eventually I switched my research from rare primates to animals that often interact with people. And now I always focus on safety!”

Cave of mud

THE SCIENTIST: Genevieve von Petzinger
COOL JOB: Paleoanthropologist
THE LOCATION: Spain, a country in Europe

“I squeezed myself feet-first into a cave opening that didn’t even come up to my knees. The cave would be tight, but it’d be worth it when I found the Ice Age art I was looking for.

“I was not prepared. The walls were so close that my nose scraped against them. And I wound up crawling through deep mud. Three exhausting hours later, dirty and very tired, I wiggled back to daylight with … photographs of two small, red dots.

“I found less art than I expected, and a lot of people might think that all that effort was a waste of time. But I know that every discovery—no matter how small—teaches me something new. And those dots were made by someone 15,000 years ago, so that’s pretty cool too!”

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