Spiderday (the fourth)

Congratulations – you’ve made it through the whole week, and are now ready for SPIDERDAY! Some Arachnological finds from the past week:

First, amazing image of a developing spider:

Yes, they are adorable. (also, Chululu)

Yes, they are adorable. (also, Cthulhu)

A quick sketch of what it looks like when a spider "takes off" by ballooning.

A quick sketch of what it looks like when a spider “takes off” by ballooning.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Spiderday (the third)

Hey Hey, it’s SPIDERDAY again! The day of the week in which you can find some links about wonderful Arachnids, from last week. (you can check out past editions here).

Here's a stunning jumping spider: Habronattus americanus (by Sean McCann)

Here’s a stunning jumping spider: Habronattus americanus (by Sean McCann)

Some spidery links:

The other Arachnids:

Ticks: you should watch out for these. Photo by Alex Wild.

Ticks: you should watch out for these. Photo by Alex Wild.

To finish, check out this Tweet: yes, folks, spiders eat spiders.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.25.28 AM

Thanks for following along! Keep me apprised of neat Arachnid stories, and I’ll include them in next week’s Spiderday.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Unanswered (Arachnological) research questions

Scientific research produces more questions than answers (at least in my experience!), and a neat paper, project or field season often leaves us with a suite of new directions to take a research program. I wish I had more time to answer some of these questions, but reality sets in: curious questions that arise aren’t always feasible, or perhaps the timing isn’t right, or the ideas aren’t funded(able), or interest from students or collaborators isn’t there. I have come to the realization that perhaps I shouldn’t keep these questions in my head, but instead should write them down, publicly. Perhaps these ideas will generate ideas for others, point me to literature on these topics, or at the very least it will help me to refine and rethink these questions. After all, coming up with a good research question is certainly one of the more challenging parts of the research process, and improving a question starts with taking a stab at formalizing it on paper.

Disclaimers:

1) I did not do any kind of extensive literature search to see whether these questions have been tackled already.

2) I think many of these questions are rather poorly formed, which is perhaps why they have not yet been answered…

Ok, so here goes, and I will start* with a few questions with an Arachnological flare:

Do Linyphiidae spiders *really* show higher diversity at more northern latitudes? This is a classic biogeographic question, and there have been hints and ideas that Linyphiidae spiders (aka “micro sheet-web spiders”, one of the most diverse families of spiders, generally small-bodied, ground-dwellers) show a reverse latitudinal trend, with fewer species in temperate regions compared to the tropics. My own lab’s research certainly supports the claim that Linyphiidae spiders dominate diversity in the North, but are they really less diverse further south?  Although this question has been partially answered at large(ish) spatial scales, I think we need to go BIGGER to truly unravel this one, and it needs to be done with sampling methods that are really comparable (i.e., standardized), along a gradient that runs from the tropics towards the poles.

What is the relationship between fang “size” in spider species and their relative venom strength? This seems like an obvious question but has perhaps not been answered. I am curious about this because I know some “small-fanged” spiders (eg, some crab spiders in the family Thomisidse) can really pack a punch, and I have heard that some larger spiders have relativity mild venom, despite the size of their fangs. I am not sure how easy it would be to answer this one: the literature about venom is probably scarce for most species, and I’m not even sure how to test for “venom strength”, or to properly quantify fang size. This question would also have to be addressed with close attention to phylogeny.

 

Check out these fangs! (and venom…). Photo by Alex Wild

In the canopy of temperate, deciduous forests, where do the spiders come from? My lab has done a fair bit of work on canopy spiders, and their dispersal abilities, but I’m just not sure where spiders come from each spring. This is particularly relevant in my region because of the strong seasonality and harsh winters. I see three options: they colonize tree-tops from afar, they climb up the tree trunk each spring from the understory, or they overwinter in the canopy. Some manipulative experiments shows some winter-active birds feed on spiders in trees, suggesting some certainly might overwinter. However, I do wonder if this is commonplace in the systems I know around Montreal. This could be a great project, and would involve perhaps tagging spiders, using population genetics, or doing some good old fashion natural history observations.

What is the relatedness of different populations of synanthropic spider species such as Salticus scenicus (the “zebra jumper“)? Many spiders are “urban” spiders, and occur frequently in association with humans. When did they arrive to these cities? Does the age (and relatedness) of each city’s population of zebra jumpers relate to the age of a city? (Eg, compare a newish city like Calgary to an older city like New York…?). When looking at population genetics, do individuals move around a lot within a city (I suspect not), or between cities (I have no idea…). This would be a neat project, in part because of the attractiveness of the spider and its close association with humans, but also because it would be feasible! I think the methods could be quite straightforward, and would address a really interesting aspect of invasive species ecology.

A cute little zebra jumper! Photo by Alex Wild.

When ballooning, how frequently do spiders take off again after they land? Spiders disperse all the time by releasing strands of silk and “sailing away”, and they certainly aren’t restricted to one flight. There has been fabulous research done about their dispersal potential and habitat suitability at a landscape scale, but I am very curious about how often they land in a location only to depart again soon after. Why would they do this? Perhaps they don’t like their landing spot, perhaps there is a competitor or predator nearby, or perhaps they just feel like it. What clues do they use to leave a spot after they land in a spot? I really have no idea how to answer this kind of question….

Why do Pseudoscorpions tend to exhibit such clumped distributions? These tiny creatures are truly fascinating, and the basic biology and distribution of most species remains unknown. I have spent a lot of time searching for and collecting Pseudoscorpions, and I have found that their local populations are incredibly “clumped”. In general terms this means you can search for a long, long time and never find any individuals and then suddenly happen upon dozens. This alone is not unusual for many animals, but I have found Pseudoscorpions to be more patchy in their distribution compared to other arthropod taxa I have spent time searching for. Why is this? Maybe I am just really unlucky or hopeless when it comes to collecting these arachnids? Perhaps their low dispersal abilities keeps them from expanding their local range (they can’t fly or walk very quickly)?  However, many are phoretic and catch rides on other animals that can disperse effectively. Maybe Pseudoscorpions have very specific niches, and perhaps those niches are relatively rare? I just don’t know.

Ok, that’s it for now…

I do hope someone out there tackles some of the unanswered questions, or corrects me if I’ve missed some key literature on these topics. Please share, comment and provide input! I also urge others to post their unanswered research questions – theses ideas need to be written down and discussed. I think we will all benefit.

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* There will surely be a Part 2, and I think this blog is a good place to throw ideas out there. It can be a type of “research notebook”, which can and should include unanswered (or unanswerable) research questions.

© C.M. Buddle

Spiderday (the second)

Welcome to the second edition of Spiderday! (here’s the first one): a weekly round-up of neat stories about Arachnids.

First up, an amazing shot of fishing spider, from Nash Turley!

A Pisauridae spider, photo by Nash Turley (reproduced here with permission)

A Pisauridae spider, photo by Nash Turley (reproduced here with permission)

Here are some links I stumbled across this week:

KnowledgeGraph_Spiders

How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.

But..

Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…

 

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

 

 

Spiderday (the first)

I have decided to start a new, weekly feature* on my blog titled “SPIDERDAY!”. This will, fittingly, come on Saturday, and will be a bit of a round-up of stories about Arachnids from the previous week. I will include some images, links to neat Arachnid-themed blog posts and scientific papers, and bring other fun news about Arachnida. The pedants may be annoyed with “Spiderday” as a title to capture stories about all of the Arachnida (which includes mites, ticks, scorpions, harvestmen, etc.), but “Arachniday” doesn’t flow quite as nicely.

So, please enjoy, share, and let me know if you come across neat stories about Arachnids, and I will include them in next week’s Spiderday.

A long-jawed orb-web spider (Tetragnatha), by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission.

A long-jawed orb-web spider (Tetragnatha), by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission.

Here are some things I pulled from the “web” this past week:

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© C.M. Buddle (2015)

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*I’m not new to doing ‘regular features’ – I ran Expiscor for many months on this blog, and then did Segments on SciLogs for a while. However, I think an Arachnid-themed regular feature will have more staying power, and is a niche that needs filling, with eight-legged greatness.

What to do with a spider in your fruit

Earlier this week, Liz Langley posted a great piece about finding spiders hiding in your fruit. My interview with her was a little longer than what was posted, so I decided to post the full text here…

OMG THERE’s A GIANT VENOMOUS SPIDERS IN MY BANNANAS WHAT DO I DO?????

Imagine you spot a spider, or spiders, or hundreds of baby spiders tucked in with the bananas you recently brought home from the grocery store, or perhaps a black widow in some grapes. The media reports on this phenomena all the time, and the headlines dazzle us with images of dangerous spider lurking amongst our fruits and veggies. And some stories are downright ridiculous.

This is largely an exaggeration: although it’s true that spiders sometimes get shipped around the globe with our produce, it’s relatively rare. Just think of the hundreds of times you bought spider-less bananas! Spiders do live in crops around the world, and generally do good things when they are living in proximity to the foods we like to eat, as they are often important predators of economically important pests occurring in agro-ecosystems. However, they are good at hiding, and sometimes end up being carried along with our bananas or grapes and in this way they hitchhike around the globe.

A wandering spider that is sometimes found in fruit (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission)

A wandering spider that is sometimes found in fruit (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission)

So… if you do find a spider alongside your fruit… here are some Do’s and Don’ts:

  1. Don’t panic. The vast majority of spiders occurring in with our fruits are not dangerous, as a recent scientific study has shown.
  2. Don’t call the authorities or the media: There are bigger and more important things in the world than hitchhiking spiders. Spiders are our friends, doing good things in the world. They are not important enough to warrant notifying the authorities, or your local TV station. It’s easy to get carried away, especially if you see a spider with an egg sac, and perhaps the baby spiders all crowding around. But avoid the compulsion to feed the fires of arachnophobia. Stay calm, carry on. You may wish to call your grocery store, not to get angry, but rather to inform them that you found a spider with your fruits or vegetables. This will allow them to check for other critters in their produce section.
  3. Do isolate your fruit: take a step back, relax, and assess the situation. Ideally, grab a plastic bag or plastic container, place it over your fruit and spider, and gently place your fruit in an isolated area. Do this gently as to avoid crushing the spiders or the bananas. If you stick this package in your fridge, this will ‘slow down’ the spiders (they are cold-blooded critters, and thus are less active when cooled down). You will want your critter to slow down before you get to step #4.
  4. Do collect your spider: this may be beyond the comfort zone of many people, but it’s not that tricky to do, and it’s important. If the spider can be collected and/or photographed, it may be possible to get it identified properly. After your fruit has been cooled off in the fridge for a while, and the spider has been slowed down, you can collect the spider by ‘brushing’ it into a smaller container, perhaps a pill bottle or mason jar. Do this carefully, quickly and with confidence. You can also gently grab it with a smaller zip-lock bag (much like you would pick up dog feces). If you are very nervous, wear a pair of rubber gloves. If you are just too uncomfortable with ANY of this, you may just have to say goodbye to your bananas and stick them in the freezer along with their spider, and in that way you will kill the spider too.
  5. Do document your adventure: One your spider is in a container or zip-lock bag, it may be possible to photograph the spider, or at least compare it to images on a reputable website, such as Rick Vetter’s excellent websiteHowever, be very, very cautious jumping to the conclusion that the spider is venomous. It’s tricky to identify spiders, and even arachnologists can struggle with the suite of species found in fruits.  That being said, you could also contact your local museum, college or University and ask about whether someone there is willing to help you with your spider. There are also excellent resources through the American Arachnological Society:
  6. Don’t release your travelling spider into the wild: most likely you are dealing with a  tropical species that just won’t live in the climates outside your house. It’s also risky to release spiders into a new environment as you don’t want to potential introduce something that doesn’t occur naturally in your backyard. And although it pains me to say this (as an arachnologist), the best course of action is to probably to kill the eight-legged cargo, and freezing it is probably the best strategy. Again, your local museum, college or university may want to see the specimens after the fact.
  7. Do enjoy your fruit: The spiders have not laid eggs in the fruit and provided you did a good look, everything is fine: wash your fruit, as normal, and enjoy. The spider is gone.