Questions and answers about spiders

Spiders, spiders, everywhere. I get asked a LOT of questions about spiders – from students, friends, neighbors, over twitter, and from journalists. I recently spent some time talking to a journalist in my hometown about spiders in Quebec*, and thought to share the details here! Here’s a copy of some of the Q&A with the journalist:

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

Q1) Why your obvious fascination with spiders?

Spiders are fascinating because they have remarkable biology and life history, and are certainly as beautiful as all other animals. They are the top predators in their own world, feeding on insects that may cause economic damage to our crops, or catching mosquitoes that seek us out for a blood meal. They build stunning webs, have remarkable diversity of body types and the live almost everywhere on the planet (all terrestrial parts, except the Antarctic). As babies the ‘balloon’ up into the air, and are among the best dispersers in the world – better than many flying insects. They are among the most common animals in ecosystems – we have recorded, for example, that wolf spiders occur in densities of over 1 spider per square m in parts of the Arctic tundra. What’s not to love?

Q2) How long have you been interested in them and why do you think they have a bad rap with so many people ?

I became interested in spiders when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph. A botany Professor there was working on the old cedar trees growing off the cliff faces of the Niagara escarpment, and during one summer he hired me to help with that work. While hanging off cliff faces, I couldn’t help but notice SO MANY SPIDERS and this piqued my curiosity, Professor Larson then allowed me to do a research project in the lab, and I did that project on spiders. Like to many things … a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I learned more, I became more and more fascinated by Arachnids, and continued on to do another undergraduate research project on spiders, and it just continued and continued until this day. I have been working with spiders now for over 20 years of my life.

Arachnophobia is real and serious for many people, but in many cases, people are not necessary arachnophobic, but rather have a general (unfounded) loathing for spiders and I believe this is largely because they have not explored their incredible biology and natural history. With education, I find people can shift from fear to curiosity and amazement. There have been studies done that illustrate that the ways that spiders move, and their extra legs, may contribute to a general fear of spiders – in other words, they can surprise us and are so “Leggy” that it causes a startle reaction and this perhaps leads to fear. This is very common in our society, and this feeds a cycle of fear, as our children learn fears from us. There may be some genetic basis to being afraid of spiders, also, and this probably relates to the fact that some spiders are indeed venomous to humans. In this part of the world, however, there are very few spiders of medical importance, and spider bites are exceedingly rare. Although everyone has a story about a spider bite, most of these are not verified, and other more likely causes should be investigated. Misdiagnosis is common in the medical field, also.

Q3) Why are they beneficial in the garden? And, even in moderation I assume, in the home ?

Spiders are beneficial because they eat many insects that themselves can be harmful to our gardens. In our homes they also feed on other insects that live in our homes. Without spiders, we would certainly have more other critters in our house and garden.

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

Q4) How many types of spiders do you think we have in this region and what would you estimate their total population to be?

There are over 40,000 different species of spiders in the world, over 3,000 species known in Canada, and over 600 species known from Quebec. That is a LOT of different kinds of spiders! There are certainly more species of spiders in the world than there are mammals or birds. I estimate an average yard in any small town in southern parts of Canada harbour easily 20-30 different species, and our local forests certainly can have over 100 different species.

It’s difficult to estimate population (i.e., how many of each kind of spider), but it’s fair to say that the old saying that you are always within three feet of spider is likely quite accurate, at least when you are in natural environments. The sheer biomass and density of spiders in some parts of the world is truly astounding.

Q5) What are some of the most common kinds of spiders?  What do they do during the winter?

Common spiders in our homes include things like the “Zebra jumper” Salticus scenicus it’s the little black and white jumping spider that is common in our window sills or on the walls of our houses, especially on warm summer days. Many of us have the Cellar spiders Pholcus phalangioides in our houses (they have long, gangly legs, but are not to be confused with “Daddy long legs – aka Harvestmenpersons – they are cousins to spiders, but not actually spiders!). In our gardens in the late summer, we see many individuals of the black-and yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia – it’s very large, with black and yellow striping on its abdomen, stringing up its huge webs in our gardens. Another very common orb-weaving spider, that also matures in the late summer, is Neoscona crucifera. We often see funnel-web or grass spiders (Agelenopsis) on dewy mornings: they can build their sheet-webs (with a funnel retreat at one end) on shrubs or on our lawns, in very high densities – obvious with a heavy layer of dew. We also find Canada’s largest spider in southern Quebec – an impressive animal!

The cute Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

The cute and common Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

Spiders do various things in the winter – in some cases the egg cases overwinter, and in other cases the spiders overwinter. Most spiders are “freeze avoidant”, meaning that they cannot freeze without dying, so they often adapt by ‘supercooling’ which essentially means they produce antifreeze in their bodies so they will survive below freezing temperatures. Spiders generally find places to hide in the winter, whether it’s in leaf-litter, under rocks, or finding a way into our warm basements.

Q6) Do you have a personal favourite spider?  If so, why, and what is it called?

I really like the ant-mimicking jumping spiders such as Peckhamia pictata  – it occurs in Quebec, and is a marvellous mimic of ants – most people don’t notice it because it fools us by its shape and behaviour – and so very easy to mistake as an ant instead of a spider. There are, in the world, about 300 different species of jumping spiders that mimic ants – a behaviour that is more common in the tropics, but also happens with some species here in the north.

Q7) How long have spiders been around on Earth and how long do spiders, on average, live?

Spiders have been around for perhaps 400 million years, which is a very, very long time. They have been on this planet far longer than us!

In this part of the world, spiders typically live one year, although some larger species may take more than one year to reach adulthood. In captivity spiders can live a very long time – I have a Tarantula named Harriet, in my lab at McGill, and she is approaching 20 years old.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

*indeed, this Q &A was Quebec-focused, so may not be generalizable to all parts of the world!

Take a survey about science blogging!

Dear readers,

I’ve teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau from Louisiana State University and 20 other Canadian science bloggers, to conduct a broad survey of Canadian science blog readers. Together we are trying to find out who reads science blogs in Canada, where they come from, whether Canadian-specific content is important to them and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information. Your feedback will also help me learn more about my own blog readers.

It will only take 5 minutes to complete the survey. Begin here:

If you complete the survey you will be entered to win one of eleven prizes! A $50 Chapters Gift Card, a $20 surprise gift card, 3 Science Borealis T-shirts and 6 Surprise Gifts! PLUS everyone who completes the survey will receive a free hi-resolution science photograph from Paige’s Photography!

Thanks for taking part!!

Science blogging and science policy

I’m super-excited to be part of a panel later this week*, on science blogging and science policy in Canada. It’s part of the Canadian Science Policy conference happening in Ottawa, and this particular panel is hosted by Science Borealis. This session has broader goals of understanding and strengthening the links between science communication and science policy, and also promises to be interactive and provide perspectives from panelists on effective blogs, and blog writing. It’s also exciting that a blog post will result from this workshop, so the audience can see a product resulting from attending the session (there will also be a Tweet-up in Ottawa on Thursday evening – FUN!)

But wait… Imposter syndrome approaching! Although I blog frequently, what do I know about science policy or about how my blogging activities link to science policy?

Ok, let’s start with science policy, defined by Wikipedia as

Science policy is an area of public policy which is concerned with the policies that affect the conduct of the science and research enterprise, including the funding of science, often in pursuance of other national policy goals such as technological innovation to promote commercial product development, weapons development, health care and environmental monitoring. Science policy also refers to the act of applying scientific knowledge and consensus to the development of public policies.

That helps. Sort of. I should say, the part about applying scientific knowledge to consensus and development of public policies helps, and I think this is where blogging has a big role to play. To me, blogging is a lot about dissemination of research (as a scientist in Canada) or about sharing ideas around science or higher education in Canada. For example, blogging a be writing about a recent paper, or thinking about ways to communicate science at an academic conference.

Blogging can really be an effective way to share stories about science, and when they hit the more main-stream media, this can be one small step towards linking science to policy. As an example, after blogging about our research paper on northern beetles, and in combination with a press release from my University, I believe we were able to effectively share our work with a broad audience. Since this work related directly to ecological monitoring and biodiversity conservation in the Arctic, it can perhaps more easily get into the hands of policy makers when we think about northern development in Canada, especially in the context of climate change.

Blogs can also connect to people st a more emotional level: a blog and tweet about a paper on pseudoscorpions, for example, led to a CBC story about curiosity and passion in science. We need curiously and passion for science. We need kids, school-teachers, naturalists, and retired people to have an interest in science, and enthusiasm for science. If people don’t know about what we do as scientists, how will this be fostered? And, of course, we want voters in Canada to know about our science. Votes lead to exciting shifts in the landscape of science in Canada. Blogging can help!

Finally, it’s important to be reminded that the bulk of my research funding comes from Canadians**, and as such, it is my responsibility to let people know how I spend their money! This information is so valuable and plays into politics and policy development in important ways. I want people to be aware of the wonderful science we are doing in Canada whether it is about a diabetes breakthrough or discovering and describing new species of flies.

I’ll finish with a question: what do YOU think about science blogging and science policy? I value your comments, and will bring them to the session one Friday: please share your ideas and opinions.


*the session will be at 13:30, Friday 27 Nov.

**the bulk of my research funding comes from NSERC, paid for by taxpayers of Canada.

Spiderday (#22)

It’s been a couple of weeks, but nevertheless, here is another edition of SPIDERDAY! All the best Arachnid-themed links, pulled from the web in the last little while.

Just look at this Jumping spider keeping an eye on her babies! Photo by Nick Porch (reproduced here with permission)

Just look at this Jumping spider keeping an eye on her babies! Photo by Nick Porch (reproduced here with permission)

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Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 9.25.57 AM

SciArt and SciComm at an entomology conference

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conference, held in Montreal. As usual, it was awesome: it was great to catch up with fiends and colleagues, and to hear about some amazing insect science. There was an active hashtag, too, that you can check it to get a sense of the breadth and depth of entomology in Canada.

A real highlight for me were the amazing conference notes that were sketched by the superbly talented Paul Manning*. I’ve certainly heard of this idea before, and read about how visual note-taking at a conference can provide new insights into the science, and enrich the experience, especially when shared with others. However, seeing this in action was quite special, and I was impressed with how Paul was able to grasp the fundamentals of talks, and draw out the key points. Case in point, check out this sketch of May Berenbaum’s talk on honey bees:


Here’s another example, based on a talk about wasp (Vespula) alarm pheromones, by Sean McCann. Here, Paul guides us through the talk, by using simple arrows, but also uses different coloured boxes to illustrate the ‘introduction’ compared to the ‘methods and results’. The take-home messages are super-clear!


And I am immensely grateful to Paul for doing  a visual sketch of my own talk, about the functional and taxonomic diversity of northern arthropods. It was a dense talk, and covered a range of topics, from ecological monitoring to complex measures used to evaluate functional diversity. Paul captured it very well, and was able to effectively get the main message of the presentation.


In sum, THANK YOU, Paul, for doing this, and illustrating the different ways we think about, draw about, and communicate science, and showing how visual note-taking has immense value. I can imagine Paul will remember those talks long into the future, and he has a permanent record to show for it. Although I dabble in sketching here and there, I’ve yet to give this a try at a scientific conference. I think I ought to bring a sketchbook to my next conference: I’m inspired.


*you can check out more of Paul’s great work on his blog.

Spiderday (#21)

Spiderday! Here’s some Arachnid-themed links I stumbled across over the past week.

Monitoring northern biodiversity: picking the right trap for collecting beetles and spiders

Ecological monitoring is an important endeavour as we seek to understand the effects of environmental change on biodiversity. We need to benchmark the status of our fauna, and check-in on that fauna on a regular basis: in this way we can, for example, better understand how climate change might alter our earth systems. That’s kind of important.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

With that backdrop, my lab was involved with a Northern Biodiversity Program a few years ago (a couple of related papers can be found here and here), with a goal of understanding the ecological structure of Arthropods of northern Canada. The project was meant to benchmark where we are now, and one outcome of the work is that we are able to think about a solid framework for ecological monitoring into the future.

A few weeks ago our group published a paper* on how to best monitor ground-dwelling beetles and spiders in northern Canada. The project resulted in over 30,000 beetles and spiders being collected, representing close to 800 species (that’s a LOT of diversity!). My former PhD student Crystal Ernst and MSc student Sarah Loboda looked at the relationship between the different traps we used for collecting these two taxa, to help provide guidelines for future ecological monitoring. For the project, we used both a traditional pitfall trap (essentially a white yogurt container stuck in the ground, with a roof/cover perched above it) and a yellow pan trap (a shallow yellow bowl, also sunk into the ground, but without a cover). Traps were placed in grids, in two different habitats (wet and “more wet”), across 12 sites spanning northern Canada, and in three major biomes (northern boreal, sub-Arctic, and Arctic).

Here’s a video showing pan traps being used in the tundra:

Both of the trap types we used are known to be great at collecting a range of taxa (including beetles and spiders), and since the project was meant to capture a wide array of critters, we used them both. Crystal, Sarah and I were curious whether, in retrospect, both traps were really necessary for beetles and spiders. Practically speaking, it was a lot of work to use multiple traps (and to process the samples afterwards), and we wanted to make recommendations for other researchers looking to monitor beetles and spiders in the north.

The story ends up being a bit complicated… In the high Arctic, if the goal is to best capture the diversity of beetles and spiders, sampling in multiple habitats is more important than using the two trap types. However, the results are different in the northern boreal sites: here, it’s important to have multiple trap types (i.e., the differences among traps were more noticeable) and the differences by habitat were less pronounced. Neither factor (trap type or habitat) was more important than the other when sampling in the subarctic. So, in hindsight, we can be very glad to have used both trap types! It was worth the effort, as characterizing the diversity of beetles and spiders depended on both sampling multiple habitats, and sampling with two trap types. There were enough differences to justify using two trap types, especially when sampling different habitats in different biomes. The interactions between trap types, habitats, and biomes was an unexpected yet important result.

Our results, however, are a little frustrating when thinking about recommendations for future monitoring. Using more than one trap type increases efforts, costs, and time, and these are always limited resources. We therefore recommend that future monitoring in the north, for beetles and spiders, could possibly be done with a trap that’s a mix between the two that we used: a yellow, roof-less pitfall trap. These traps would provide the best of both options: they are deeper than a pan trap (likely a good for collecting some Arthropods), but are yellow and without a cover (other features that are good for capturing many flying insects). These are actually very similar to a design that is already being used with a long-term ecological monitoring program in Greenland. We think they have it right**.

A yellow pitfall trap - the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada's Arctic.

A yellow pitfall trap – the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada’s Arctic.

In sum, this work is really a “methodological” study, which when viewed narrowly may not be that sexy. However, we are optimistic that this work will help guide future ecological monitoring programs in the north. We are faced with increased pressures on our environment, and a pressing need to effectively track these effects on our biodiversity. This requires sound methods that are feasible and provide us with a true picture of faunal diversity and community structure.

It looks to me like we can capture northern beetles and spiders quite efficiently with, um, yellow plastic beer cups. Cheers to that!


Ernst, C, S. Loboda and CM Buddle. 2015. Capturing Northern Biodiversity: diversity of arctic, subarctic and northern boreal beetles and spiders are affected by trap type and habitat. Insect Conservation and Diversity DOI: 10.1111/icad.12143


* The paper isn’t open access. One of the goals of this blog post is to share the results of this work even if everyone can’t access the paper directly. If you want a copy of the paper, please let me know and I’ll be happy to send it to you. I’m afraid I can’t publish all of our work in open access journals because I don’t have enough $ to afford high quality OA journals.

** The big caveat here is that a proper quantitative study that compares pan and and pitfall traps to the “yellow roof-less pitfall” traps is required. We believe it will be the best design, but belief does need to be backed up with data. Unfortunately these kind of trap-comparison papers aren’t usually high on the priority list.