"I want to be an entomologist." These words are no doubt uttered by thousands of people every day ... who wouldn't want to play with bugs for work? (Ok, perhaps it's not for everyone, though we certainly would!) But like in any scientific field, there are some less glamorous jobs that go hand in hand with making big discoveries about insects. For example, if you want to make comparisons between two specimens, you have to pin them in position, and re-align and re-pin the specimen each time you want to look at or photograph a different structure. 

Dr Steen Dupont, an entomologist at London's Natural History Museum (NHM), was growing tired of the fiddly task, so he found a solution in a medium he's long appreciated: Lego. "I solve problems with Lego ... That’s just what I do," he explains. "People are usually quite sceptical at first, but quickly realise the potential when they see it in use, and then they want one!"

Image: Dupont et al., ZooKeys

After some trial-and-error-driven Lego construction, Dupont and his collaborators created what they call the 'Pinned Insect Manipulator' (IMp for short), a contraption that allows for an insect to be rotated at small intervals without being repositioned. The design was released this week in the journal ZooKeyswhere anyone – professional entomologist, or backyard insect aficionado – can download it for free.

It's important to note that this isn't a novel concept, and for many a bug scientist, taking the time to build an IMp isn't worth the trouble. Entomologist Morgan Jackson, for example, prefers to use a lower-tech stage made from plasticine clay or foam (both of which are certainly cheaper than Lego). "While it is neat, creative and definitely trendy, I just don't see it as the wonder device many people are making it out to be," he says. "It's sort of the entomological equivalent of building a 'better' mouse trap."

Dupont echoes this sentiment in the paper, though he and his team think their version a better option for those opting to build complicated devices. "The idea of a holding mechanism for pinned specimens is as old as the pinned specimen itself," he says. " ... and previous authors have provided custom designs for insect specimen manipulators. But most commercial examples are made from materials and tools that are not readily available to everyone. Furthermore most DIY setups are specifically designed for a particular group of insects and may not be of an appropriate size for other insect groups. The design presented here is universally applicable, readily available, cost effective, portable and fully customisable." 

The NHM plans to digitise 20 million of their specimens this year (and that's just one museum!), a process that involves taking multiple digital photos of each specimen. The IMp will help them minimise handling along the way. Is this device the best option? We'll leave that debate to the scientists ... either way, it's certainly a fun use of Lego!

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Image: Natural History Museum London/Screengrab from YouTube
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Image: Natural History Museum London/Screengrab from YouTube
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Image: Natural History Museum London/Screengrab from YouTube
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Image: Natural History Museum London/Screengrab from YouTube
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Image: Steve Dupont et al., Natural history Museum London
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Image: Dupont et al., ZooKeys

And for all my fellow 'Legophiles' out there, the team created a timelapse of the build!