Expiscor (4 November 2013): the obscure edition

Last week I had a terrific discussion with a twitter friend, and he suggested that many/most of the links on Expiscor are ones that were VERY frequently discussed over various social media sites – i.e., a re-distribution of commonly viewed stories. Of course, that is part of the objective of Expiscor, but I also want to be a provider of stories people haven’t heard about previously. So, CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! This week my goal is to provide links to things that are so weird, and obscure that you will totally surprised. It’s the obscure edition….  Please take the poll at the end of this post to let me know if I succeeded!

  • Steampunk, clockwork Goliath Beetle.  I want this. Available from BrazenDevice (thanks, Evan, for allowing me to post the photo here. Ento-geeks will love it!)

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  • The Echinoblog...check out this blog description: Echinodermata! Starfish! Sea Urchins! Sea Cucumbers! Stone Lillies! Feather Stars! Blastozoans! Sea Daisies! Marine invertebrates found throughout the world’s oceans with a rich and ancient fossil legacy. Their biology and evolution includes a wide range of crazy and wonderful things. Let me share those things with YOU! ….The question is: How did I ever miss this blog. Awesome.

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  • Tweet of the week goes to Leonard Nimoy (Ok this is NOT at all obscure, but it sure is funny):

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My favourite spider species: a natural history story 120 years in the making

A little while ago my nephew asked me what my favourite spider was. I quickly answered “Peckhamia picata“, in part because I had recently returned from a field trip in which that species was collected (a trip to one of my favourite places in Quebec), but also because the species has the most amazing habitus: is a myrmecomorph – a species that looks a heck of a lot like an ant. Here’s a photo to illustrate this:

A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

So, what does this species do? What are its behaviours? Where does it live?

I started digging around to see what literature exist on this species. There are certainly many publications that discuss its distribution – it is on many checklists (see here for a relatively complete list), and I was aware that it was originally described as Synemosyna picata (by Hentz, in 1846).

I did a search of Web of Science for publications with the species name, and came up with two hits. One was a systematics papers on a related genus of jumping spider, and the second was a paper by Durkee et al. in 2011*.  They did some laboratory studies of the species, to assess whether or not its ant-like appearance helped it avoid being eaten by predators (spoiler: the answer is yes). A little more digging on-line took me to various sites, and in some cases, I came across this statement:  “almost no information on them

What?  Really?

A Peckhamia picata, from Quebec (Photo by J. Brodeur, reproduced here with permission)

A Peckhamia picata, from Quebec (Photo by J. Brodeur, reproduced here with permission)

Peckhamia picata is a widespread species, with an incredible appearance, and it’s a jumping spider!  Salticids are the darling of the arthropod world –> the panda bears of the invertebrates: big eyes, furry, fascinating courtship behaviours, and truckloads of ‘personality’.  Surely we know SOMETHING about what I declared as my favourite species.

Thankfully, in a filing cabinet in my laboratory, I have a series of older publications on the Salticidae, including “A Revision of the Attidae of North America” by Peckham & Peckham (1909) [available here as a PDF download - note: big file!]. The George and Elizabeth Peckham did an incredible amount of work on the Salticidae (called Attidae, previously). The Peckhams are themselves a fascinating story – some details are on their Wikipedia page  and I’ll summarize briefly: they were teachers (in Wisconsin), natural historians, behavioural ecologists and taxonomists, notably with jumping spiders.  The bulk of their work was done in the late 1800s, and they often cited and discussed Darwinian concepts. They were awesome and I would have liked to meet them.

Another stunning Peckhamia species, this one from Thomas Shahan.

Another stunning Peckhamia species, this one from Thomas Shahan.

So, back to Peckamia picata: Their 1909 tome states the following about the species “We have described in detail its mating and general habits in Vol. II, Part 1 of the Occ. Pap. Nat. Hist. Soc. Wis. pp. 4-7)”.

So, apparently 1909 does not take us far enough back in history to learn about Peckhamia picata. Their paper from 1892 had all the details, and thankfully was fully accessible on the biodiversity heritage library.

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Here is some of the lovely writings about Peckhamia picata, from the Peckhams, in 1892 (transcribed from their papers):

About appearance:

While picata is ant-like in form and colour, by far the most deceptive thing about it is the way it which it moves. It does not jump like the other Attidae [Salticidae], nor does it walk in a straight line, but zig-zags continually from side to side, exactly like an ant which is out in search of booty. This is another illustration of which Wallace has shown in relation to butterflies ...”

(note: The Peckhams give a node to that Wallace guy….)

About feeding behaviour:

Spiders commonly remain nearly motionless while they are eating; picata, on the other hand, acts liks an ant which is engaged in pulling some treasure-trove into pieces convenient for carrying I have noticed a female picata which, after getting possession of a gnat, kept beating it with her front legs as she ate, pulling it about in different directions, and all the time twitching her ant-like abdomen

Regarding courtship:

From the Peckham's 1892 publication.

From the Peckham’s 1892 publication.

His abdomen is lifted vertically so that it is at right angle to the plane of the cephalothorax. in this position he sways from side to side. After a moment he drops the abdomen, runs a few steps nearer the female, then then tips his body and begins to sway again. Now he runs in one direction, now in another, pausing every few moments to rock from side to side and to bend his brilliant legs so that she may look full at them.”

In sum, this journey of discovery has made me fall in love with Peckhamia picata even more. It’s also reminded me that OLD literature is essential to our current understanding of the species we identify. There is a wealth of information in these “natural history” papers – although the writing is in a different style, it is scientific, it is the foundation of current biodiversity science.  We cannot ignore these older books and “Occasional papers”. We can’t rely on quick internet searches and we certainly can’t rely on literature indexed on Web of Science.

We must dig deep and far into the past. There are ‘treasure-troves’ aplenty.

—————–

*The oldest paper cited in Durkee et al. is from 1960. They did not cite the Peckhams.

Another Peckhamia species, courtesy of Matt Bertone (reproduced here, with permission)

Another Peckhamia species, courtesy of Matt Bertone (reproduced here, with permission)

References:

Durkee, C. A. et al. 2011. Ant Mimicry Lessens Predation on a North American Jumping Spider by Larger Salticid Spiders. Environmental Entomology 40(5): 1223-1231

Peckham, G.W., and E.G. Peckham. 1892. Ant like spiders of the family Attidae Occ. Pap. Nat. Hist. Soc. Wis. II, 1 .

Peckham, G.W., and E.G. Peckham. 1909. Revision of the Attidae of North America. Trans. Wis. Academy of Sci., Arts & Letters. Vol. XVI, 1(5), 355-646.

Undergraduate students tweet their research questions.

As part of my field biology class this term, students (in groups) are working on research projects about natural history. As part of this, they have set up twitter accounts, and groups were challenged to “tweet their research question“.

This is a great exercise: it forces concise writing, and allows for help and feedback in the development of a good research question.

Here are the tweets – please feel free to direct comments to the groups! (the research projects are officially starting today, 1 October) [click on the tweet to get to the group’s twitter accounts)

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And yes, these groups DID receive help from people outside of the course (and from around the world) as they developed their research question. For example, the group studying medicinal plants discussed some ideas over twitter with a biologist in Germany:

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And in the following conversation, the Chickadee group received some reinforcement from Prof. Margaret Rubega, at the University of Connecticut, about the need to develop a solid research question:

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SO… what do YOU think?  Could you tweet your research question? Can you help these students improve their questions? Feedback, as always, is welcome!

Expiscor (16 September 2013)

Bringing you another week of discoveries… Expiscor is here!

  • Don’t believe me? Well here’s a photo from that blog post (reproduced here, with permission)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

  • The path of least resistance. A wonderful post about evolution, from Malcolm Campbell. I love this quote:  “Evolution shows us that, contingent on the forces that shape them, paths of least resistance can lead to stunning innovation
  • Ok, I know you are now ready for a spider photograph, courtesy of Thomas Shahan (reproduced here, with permission)
Jumping spiders are the best.

Jumping spiders are the best.

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  • And a spidery video to finish things off. So awesome:

Tweet tweet, twitter twitter: linking natural history and social media in a field biology class

Last year I used twitter and blogs in my field biology class at McGill, and it was such a successful experiment that I shall do it again!  Last year, students sent tweets to promote their blogs about natural history in the St Lawrence Lowlands, and the tweets were one way to disseminate information to a broad audience. This assignment also gave students an opportunity to write in different ways, and to distill information down to the most important facts.

This year things will be a little different: Students will again be completing natural history projects in the course, and will be doing so after assembling in groups early in the term. Projects will be focused on specific species found in our region, from trees to beetles, to mushrooms and mammals. Each week, students will be tweeting facts, anecdotes, and observations about their study species (and some of these tweets should come directly from the field)

Tweeting from the field!

Tweeting from the field!

So, this raises the question: why Twitter? 

1. Open. Twitter allows the conversation to go out to the world, to whomever is interested. It allows ANYONE with an interest in the topic to follow along, reply, interact and collaborate. It provides an opportunity for experts on the topic to comment and improve the quality of the content and information. As an instructor in a general field biology course, I cannot be an expert on all things, and thus twitter can bring in the experts.

2. Collaboration: Twitter is terrific at fast, easy collaboration. It allows quick commentary, discussion, and is immensely user-friendly. I am especially fond of the reply features in Twitter that allow a conversation to maintain some elements of open-ness for all to see, but the direction and flavour of the conversation can be  focused. Experts external to the course can quickly view the conversation and take part regardless of their geography. The quality of the ideas and content are what matters, not whether someone has a PhD, or attends a certain institution. Its requirement of 140 characters is an asset, making sure that users get to the point quickly, and thus allow opportunity for the careful construction of a sentence. It’s more difficult to write concisely and twitter presents an extreme example of this.

3. Tracking: The use of a hashtag allows easy archiving of content, including conversations, and it’s also possible to track who (outside of the course) engages with students, and has an interest in the topics. Students can monitor the activity occurring in other groups, and can learn about who to follow, who to engage with, and that can improve the quality of their own twitter use.  They can track related hashtags, and find content more specific to their own project.

4. Academic value: In my experience, twitter is not fully appreciated for its academic use. Twitter has serious value, and in some circles, twitter is embraced as a teaching tool (e.g., see this & this). Education is about people, communication and collaboration as much as it is about facts and content.  ANY tools that help us better connect, discuss and debate are good tools, and when we can engage a community beyond the institution’s boundaries, everyone wins. Sure, twitter can be fun and social, but its value is much deeper and more significant.

5. Validation: we all need to feel that things we do are valuable and valued.  In most University classes, students write for a Professor or Teaching Assistant, sometimes for peers, but seldom for an audience beyond the institution’s walls. Last year, one of the most significant ‘A-Ha!’ moments was when students talked with delight about how they interacted with people from other countries about their natural history projects – interactions facilitated by social media tools such as twitter.

A tweet from one of last year's groups.

A tweet from one of last year’s groups.

So, are you sold, now?  Make a twitter account and follow along!  Carly Ziter (incidentally, a TA for the class this term!) wrote an excellent ‘how to’ guide for social media (accessible from this page).  Follow the hashtag #ENVB222 and take part in this class, whether you live in Brisbane, Medicine Hat, or Dublin. If you like Natural History, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Expiscor (9 September 2013)

Welcome to Monday… Welcome to Expiscor! Weekly links about entomology, nature, and a dash of the curious. Here’s what I came across this past week:

  • Speaking of Harvestmen, as Derek Hennen points out, this one is like a Christmas tree (adorned with shiny mites)
Get a load of this Harvestman! (photo courtesy or Derek Hennen, reproduced here with permission)

Get a load of this Harvestman! (photo courtesy or Derek Hennen, reproduced here with permission)

  • Beetles drinking wine and so much more: Insect dioramas. Go look. PLEASE go look.
The Spiny Oak Slug (copyright C. Ernst)

The Spiny Oak Slug (copyright C. Ernst)

  • Tweet of the week goes to…Marc Ozon. It’s just so true.

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  • Interesting perspectives on Academia, using the concept of reviewing papers as an example:… should we “give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise”
  • I was at a Science Communication workshop last week, and was introduced to this:

Expiscor (2 September 2013)

Welcome to September (and Labour day, today)! September is favourite month here in the Montreal area – the weather remains fantastic, the maple trees start to change colour, and migrating birds begin moving through.  And best of all, the Academic term starts – for me, lectures begin tomorrow.  For now, however, let’s see what discoveries were uncovered over the past week…

  • An incredible spider photo to share with you, from Sean McCann. Here’s a pair of mating Hyptiotes gertschi (Family Uloboridae) (reproduced here, with permission)

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  • OK, let’s spread around the love. Ants are also beautiful (look, a moustache!), as Alex Wild shows us here:
Cephalotes atratus (photo (c) A. Wild) - THANKS Alex, for allowing me to post your photos on Expiscor!

Cephalotes atratus (photo (c) A. Wild) – THANKS Alex, for allowing me to post your photos on Expiscor!

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  • Close to home, McGill’s Tomato Tornado! FUN!

Quiet Ocean

My tweets and photos about the Arctic caught the attention of the super-talented, all-around great biologist/naturalist (& musician) Nash Turley, and he wrote a poem. It’s lovely.

QUIET OCEAN

White ice is broken by incessant glow

Sea comes alive, to sing, so grow

Anadromous fins fled winter extremes

Return to dance in shimmering streams

Churning chilled seas offer brief respite

Inviting colored stones to reflect light

Crystalline plane is dazzling effect

Shaken silhouette as I stop and reflect

Here’s one of the photos that inspired this poetry.

Good fishing place

(Thank you, Nash, for the discussions, the poem, and for allowing me to post it here.)

Arctic reflections (Part 2)

I started a post last week about my recent field trip to the Arctic – I was situated in Cambridge Bay (Nunavut) for a week, and here are a few more reflections from that trip.

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Wildlife

Walking across the tundra brings sights of circling rough-legged hawks and the sounds of jaegers. We were able to find spots where the hawks like to sit (at higher elevations, on a pile of rocks and boulders). The vegetation is particularly rich under these perches, as the nutrient inputs are very high! We could also find feathers, and pellets – these pellets are a tidy package – a mass that represents the undigested parts of a bird’s food, regurgitated. These pellets can be dissected and you can find the tiny bones of small mammals. While in Cambridge Bay it was a particularly good year for lemmings, and thus a particularly good year for hawks, and snowy owls. Each day on the tundra, about a dozen different snowy owls were sighted. They were always just the right distance away, perched beautifully and peacefully on slight rise – a close look with the binoculars showed the owls staring right back, tracking our movements as we were tracking theirs. If you walk little closer, the owls take off, flying low and fast over the tundra.

Bird food. Aka lemming.

Bird food. (otherwise known as lemming).

At times, off in the distance, it was also possible to see black, slow-moving shapes – unusual creatures, shaggy, and foreign to a boy from the south. These were muskoxen – chewing their way across the tundra. While in Cambridge Bay I spent some time with graduate students working on Muskox health, and I learned of the serious disease, lungworm, that is affecting these stunning mammals. Lungworm has been known from the mainland for some time, but only more recently on Victoria Island – climate change is a possible reason for this change in distribution. These nematodes use slugs or snails as intermediate hosts. Yes, there are slugs and snails in the Arctic!  Finally, it’s pretty difficult to talk about Cambridge Bay without mentioning the fish. The traditional name for this place, in Inuinnaqtun, is “good fishing place“, and that is an apt description. We ate fresh fish every day, enjoying Lake trout, Greenland cod, and the most delicious of all, Arctic Char. We were blessed with amazing weather during my week in Cambridge Bay, and our Sunday afternoon fishing trip on the ocean was picture-perfect.

Good fishing place.

Good fishing place.

Landscape and light

It’s hard to explain the North to people who have never experienced it, but let me try:

The landscape is breathtaking in its starkness.  The tundra rolls out like a grey/green/brown carpet, as far as the eye can see. It’s broken up by ponds, streams, and lakes, and broken up by slight changes in elevation. This results in a landscape that ripples with shadows and colours; a landscape that meanders, curls and curves depending on the underlying bedrock, sediment, glacial till, and permafrost. 

At first glance, the Arctic tundra appears homogenous, but after walking for hours upon hummocks and through cotton grass, you start to see the diversity of ecosystems, and the heterogeneity in microhabitats. It’s a landscape that is forever changing and providing plants and animals opportunities as well as challenges. I was in Cambridge Bay in early August, and it was evident that the summer season was ending.  In addition to the signs from the plants (lack of flowers) and wildlife (geese were moving in, in flocks; butterflies were seldom seen), the strongest evidence was the light. During the week I was in Cambridge Bay, there was about 18 hours of daylight each day, but the land is losing about 5 minutes of light each day – it’s a rapid change. Since Cambridge Bay is above the Arctic circle, it gets 24 hours light in June and early July, but by mid-August, summer is winding down. This means, however, that you can experience the most stunning sunsets – you can sit for hours and watch the sun approach the horizon from a remarkably shallow angle. The “magic” light is with you for hours. The kind of low light that makes everything slow down.  The kind of light that creates long, dancing shadows, and warms everything in a soft, gentle glow.

Arctic reflections

Reflection

To finish, I wanted to write a little bit about perspective. The Arctic makes you feel close to the earth. When standing on the tundra, the land before you contains no telephone lines, roads or apartment buildings. It’s very much like it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. You could start walking and you won’t likely see anyone else. The Arctic causes you to reflect and slow down. And most importantly, the Arctic makes you feel small. I think that’s an important feeling to have every now and then. The land is vast and old; we are small and young. Let’s remember we are here for a short while, and some of our time is probably well spent out in a forest, on a lake, or hiking the tundra.  Time on the land is time well spent, in part because it causes you to pause and reflect. I think the world would be a better place if we spent a little more time breathing in nature, and remembering what the earth is giving us and on how we ought to respect it a little more.  We owe it everything.

The Arctic makes me think of these things and for that I am grateful.

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Expiscor (29 July 2013)

From the world of arachnology, entomology and beyond… Expiscor is here for you!  Here are some things I stumbled across this week:

  • Photo time! Another stunning shot from Adrian Thysse – this one of a crab spiders as prey. You can follow his blog here (and thanks to Adrian for allowing me to reproduce the shot, here)
Dipigon sayi with Xysticus prey

Dipigon sayi with Xysticus prey

  • Spider poop.  Spider Joe posted an amazing photo of the stuff (see below); the solids are undigested prey material and the liquid is a slurry of guanine crystals. Wow. (um, and as Joe stated on twitter, Oreo cookie, anyone?)

Spider poop

  • Bird poop. I had some land on me earlier this week. Apparently that should only happen once every 195 years. (I take that as good luck). Thanks Lab & Field for the link!
  • Tweet of the week goes to my (young) colleague Dr. Dez:

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  • And finally, a Happy Birthday (today!) to my big sister. She’s awesome (and she writes books!)
  • For nature geeks everywhere… True facts about owls. I love this: