No shit: how I lost my one-of-a-kind collection and my girlfriend, too

For his PhD, Daniel Bennett had built a unique set of faecal samples from a rare lizard. When it was destroyed, he really hit bottom

February 5, 2009

To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world's largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards. I didn't realise just how much my bag of lizard shit meant to me until it was "accidentally" incinerated at the University of Leeds early in the third year of my PhD.

Whether it was the largest collection of lizard shit in the world is uncertain, but it certainly contained the only dietary sample from that little-known species Varanus olivaceus, and probably the most complete dietary record of any single population of animals in South East Asia. Its loss left me reeling and altered the course of my life for ever.

Varanus olivaceus - otherwise known as the butaan - is closely related to the infamous Komodo dragon of Indonesia, and is considered to be at least as important in conservation terms. Unlike its formidable cousin - in fact, unlike any other monitor lizard - the butaan and its close relatives eat only fruit and snails, and they spend virtually all their lives high in the canopy of lowland dipterocarp forest in the Philippines.

Unfortunately for them, they have a reputation among local people for being extremely delicious, but they are so shy and rare that very few people have ever actually seen, let alone tasted, one. In fact, the butaan is so reclusive that all attempts to study it using methods that have proved suitable for the Komodo dragon and other large lizards have ended in total failure.

After an encounter with humans, butaan never return to the place where they were captured. The capture of a single animal often results in the total cessation of activity by all butaan in the area, probably because trapped individuals release scents that deter others from coming too close. Habituating such a tasty beast to the presence of humans would clearly not be in the species' best interests, so studying the butaan requires completely non-intrusive methodologies.

My team and I studied the animals by searching the forest floor for their distinctive faeces and using clues from their shit to estimate dietary patterns, population size and structure, and activity areas. After five years of shit-searching, I felt that I could collect enough reliable data about the lizards to earn a PhD. On the basis of my work, I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship by Leeds.

By the beginning of the third year of my PhD, I knew more about lizard shit than I had ever thought possible. Returning to Leeds from fieldwork, I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student and to see that photographs of my daughter, my girlfriend and my favourite lizards had been removed from the wall.

The laboratory space where my samples had been stored was empty. Irritation turned to fear as I realised that my personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit. Fear turned to anger and bewilderment when I learnt that my samples had been "accidentally" removed from the lab and incinerated.

The department's reaction to my plight was, to say the least, muted. In fact, it took 16 months before I received an official response to my complaint, which offered me £500 compensation and announced that new protocols had been established to ensure that no other students suffered a similar mishap.

The loss of my samples did not prevent me from finishing my PhD, but the effect it had on my motivation and enthusiasm was profound. The samples represented the only primary evidence for my study and, as such, were the only way anybody could verify my findings.

They also had the potential to be used for a great deal of postdoctoral research. The apparent indifference of the department to the destruction of my collection compounded my feeling of despair.

By the time I received its reply to my complaint - just seven weeks before the final deadline to submit my thesis - I had been in deep depression for about a year. The day after that, my girlfriend of ten years left me. People are rarely at their happiest when writing a thesis, but I needed a waterproof keyboard to finish mine.

I drew a blank when I tried to find other examples of PhD students who had suffered similar experiences, although I asked many friends and colleagues throughout the world. Most people react incredulously to my story. And no, I didn't accept the university's £500, and yes, I will see them in court. Watch this space.

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