Insects are fragile, and scientists researching them have to be very careful with their specimens. Unfortunately, the devices out there are expensive and size-specific. So a group of entomologists have turned to that most customizable of materials to serve their needs: Legos.

Image credit: Figure 1, Dupont et al. "IMp: The customizable LEGO® Pinned Insect Manipulator" ZooKeys

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Published in ZooKeys, the paper explains all the problems and the solutions the team has come up with:

With the rapid increase in collections digitization, museum specimens are handled to a much larger extent than ever before. Positioning and repositioning of specimens during digitization is often required for the majority of specimen handling in a collection. As handling of pinned specimens carries the most immediate risk of damage, especially to the fragile extremities (e.g. legs, antenna and wings) specimen manipulators are of great value to the overall preservation of a functioning pinned natural history collection.

A good insect specimen manipulator requires the following properties: (i) Foremost the manipulator should allow for easy positioning and repositioning of specimens especially if used for imaging at multiple views or comparing structures at different angles; (ii) Stability to prevent the specimen moving once in the correct position; (iii) Capability of fine scale adjustment to enable positioning the specimen under magnification and (iv) Open design to allow for both specimen placement/removal and adequate illumination of the specimen to be examined.

The researchers, lead by first author Steen Dupont, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, constructed cage-like devices for the insects. The specimen is secured with a pin stuck into cork or foam stuffed into a Lego connector peg. The cage also has a system of cogs — again made of Lego — which lets them manipulate to their hearts content.

Dupont told The Guardian that the Legos have features beyond price and customization, "You can take them apart, put them in a bag, travel with them. They are as robust as any of those commercial models."

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Steen's not done using commercially available products to improve his research, with a new design on the horizon which brings together Legos and mobile phones to take images of insects without having to use a microscope.

Regardless of what's next, the current designs — available here — are well on their way to capturing the imagination of other museums. "There's quite a few museums that are already interested," said Dupont. "When we show it to people they are quite excited. They find it fun. They are very optimistic about trying it."