It started with the crickets

It all started with the crickets.

And it got a lot bigger than that.

I couple of weeks ago I received a gift from one of my MSc students – a lovely little tarantula that we affectionately call “Shelob”. My family was reasonably tolerant of this new addition. Shelob is a Chilean Rose-hair, a sort of pet that is sometimes referred to as a pet rock. But it’s a rock that needs feeding, hence the crickets. “Feeder crickets” are crafty little insects and despite my assumption that the terrarium for the crickets was sealed tightly, that was not the case. Unfortunately we had guests over for the weekend, and they were unimpressed by the cheeping crickets from under their bed in the middle of the night. And my teenage son was very angry one morning, having been woken up a bit too early by crickets in his bedroom*. The crickets were everywhere:

 

Crickets: Everywhere

Crickets: Everywhere

 

I'm not the only one with a cricket problem.

I’m not the only one with a cricket problem.

Living with an Entomologist (or Arachnologist) can be a challenge. It requires our partners / families / roommates / friends to be very tolerant of some odd behaviours. In my experience entomologists really know how to bring their work home with them. Our field of study is a passion that moves beyond the research lab or field site. It’s a passion that means we need to have sweep nets at home as well as at work, and most entomologists I know have a vial (or two) in their pocket, so they can collect their study specimens wherever they are (although we sometimes forget). This means, by extension, that our freezers at home become a place for frozen food AND dead insects. This is clearly something that is shared with entomologists around the world (which means, of course, that there are thousands and thousands of freezers in homes that act has a short-term specimen storage location as well as a place for ice cream and frozen peas – that may either impress you, or creep you out).

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

Another generality that emerges from these Tweets is that our partners, friends and/or families often have to be our ‘helpers’: holding up a thumb for scale, being a good landing spot for mosquitoes, or holding various entomological equipment while we scramble on hands and knees to grab that elusive specimen.

LizzyLowe

Holidays? They sure are fun when living with an entomologist…

The division between “work” and “play” is a difficult one to make for entomologists: there is a single-minded joy associated with collecting our study species, no matter where you are (honeymoon?) and no matter the time of day. It’s actually quite fun to run around the backyard with a sweep net, chasing *that* butterfly. A few years ago I recall seeing a very lovely butterfly heading from my backyard to the front yard – I was barbequing (in bare-feet) at the time – thankfully the trusty sweep net was right next to the house. I made a dash for it, hooting and hollering the whole time. The butterfly was quick – so much so that it was about 200 ft up the street before I collected it. My neighbors then became very well aware of what I “do”: the barefoot entomologist.

The final personal anecdote I will share is the “Specimens on the doorstep” phenomenon, shared among many entomologists: once you are known as the “bug person” in your town or city, BEWARE – people will drop off mason jars with odd critters in them. You know, the beetle that is eating Samantha’s roses, or the ant found in a neighbor’s dishwasher. So often I come home and one of my kids says to me “Dad – there’s another jar for you on the kitchen table”. I guess this isn’t all that normal…?

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

The hashtag #LivingWithAnEntomologist certainly took off: It’s clear that this concept hit a nerve, and that my own observations were actually quite general. SO many people tweeted their stories about what it’s like to live with an entomologist. Thank you to a most wonderful community of friends and colleagues.

To my dear and loving family: I’m sorry (But not really).

Cheep cheep.

——

* Note: I have some minor hearing loss, and despite EVERYONE telling me about chirping crickets in our house, I just don’t hear them. Lucky me, I suppose.

Spiderday (the seventh)

Welcome to spiderday. THE place to get all the stories about arachnids, from the past week. And boy oh boy it was a good week!

Let’s get started:

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it's threatened. Wow.

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it’s threatened. Wow. Photo by Chthoniid, reproduced here with permission.

A spider of sorts.

A spider of sorts.

A mitey good pun.

A mitey good pun.

Spider book update: Help us pick our species!

We’re writing a spider book! Chris Buddle and Roar will soon present a happy volume packed with eight-legged greatness.

Each chapter will highlight a common species: a plain language and scientific overview of the biology and natural history of common spider species of North America. That’s a big task, because of the hundreds of potential candidate species, we’ll only highlight a dozen or so of the most common.

We need your help: Many of you provided valuable feedback on your favorite spidey friends, and we have already spoken to loads of Arachnologists, but we want to know what’s on everybody’s minds (spiderly speaking). See our chapter candidates and let us know if we missed a North American species SO INCREDIBLE IT MUST BE INCLUDED!

Here are the species we are proposing as “main chapters”:

Argiope aurantia (garden spider, or writing spider)Argiope

Oxyopes salticus (the striped lynx spider)

Oxyopes

Neoscona sp. (orb-weavers)

OrbWeb1OrbWeb2

Misumena vatia (goldenrod crab spider)

Misumena

Dolomedes sp. (fishing or dock spiders)

Dolomedes

Salticus scenicus (zebra jumper)

Zebra

Parasteatoda tepidariorum (American house spider)

HouseSpider

Latrodectus sp. (widow spiders)

Widow

Pardosa sp. (thin-legged wolf spiders)

WolfSpider

Cheiracanthum sp. (ceiling spiders)

CeilingSpider

Agelenopsis sp. (funnel-web spiders)

Agelenopsis

Phidippus audax (bold jumping spider)

Phidippus

Frontinella communis (bowl and doily spider)

Frontinella

Sphodros niger (black purse-web spider)

Sphodrus

And our candidates for sidebars:

Mastophora sp. (bolus spiders)

Scytodes thoracica (spitting spider)

Walckenaeria sp. (money spiders, or micro-sheet web spiders)

Dysdera crocata (wood-louse hunter)

Loxosceles reclusa (brown recluse)

Tetragnatha sp. (long-jawed orb weavers)

Tibellus oblongus

Peckhamia sp. or Synemosyna (ant-mimicking jumping spiders)

Herpyllus ecclesiasticus (Parson’s spider)

Trochosa terricola (wolf spider)

Gasterachantha cancriformis (spiny-backed orb weaver)

Pholcus phalangioides (cellar spider)

 

So… what do you think?

Comment here or email us your thoughts, feelings, or weird spider dreams (only if you really want to)! Your spidersenses are valuable to us!

Thanks!
Yours in spidery greatness,

Chris and Roar

 

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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.

 

 

The effects of Twitter on student engagement and learning

There are lots of ‘feel good’ stories about using Twitter in teaching, and I’ve long been a supporting of using social media in undergraduate classes. But does it work…? What effects does Twitter have on learning?

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

This was a question we decided to tackle in my field biology class, and recently, in a collaboration with Lauren Soluk (as part of her graduate work), we surveyed students about using Twitter in the classroom*. Here are the take-home messages from the work:

  • Students Tweeted over 200% more than what was required as part of the course work
  • Students used Twitter in many different ways, from informal communication, to promoting their own blogs, to asking questions of each other or of the course instructors and TA.
  • Students used Twitter to communicate with their instructor or TA 56% of the time, with their peers 27% of the time, and with people external to the course 17% of the time.
  • 94% of students felt that among-group communication was beneficial (i.e., either ‘yes” or ‘somewhat’) to their learning, and 78% of students surveyed felt Twitter increased this among-group communication.
  • When asked whether Twitter had an impact on how they engaged with the course content, 67% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
  • When asked whether Twitter is a good tool to help student learn in the classroom,  78% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

Interesting, most students surveyed said they wouldn’t continue to use Twitter after the class was over. They certainly preferred other tools (e.g., Facebook) to Twitter. Despite this, the students felt Twitter useful in the context of the field biology class, and could see its value independent of their own personal views.

Overall, the results are impressive, and suggests there are good reasons to consider using social media tools such as Twitter, in a University class. It’s certainly not a tool for everyone (and there are important guidelines to consider), nor would it be useful in all contexts, but it clearly serves an important role in my field biology class. Twitter allows students to engage with different audiences, and helps create a rather novel learning community: a community that can include experts from around the world.

A question asked by students, over Twitter

A question asked by students, over Twitter

The answer... from an expert from a different country.

The answer… from an expert from a different country.

Reference:

*Soluk, L & CM Buddle Tweets from the forest: using Twitter to increase student engagement in an undergraduate field biology course [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review]

Note: this paper is currently awaiting peer review – please consider reading the full paper and providing a review! 

 

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.

 

Spider Book!

WE are excited. The “We” is me and Eleanor Spicer Rice, of Buzz Hoot Roar fame, and author of the incredible e-books about ants.

Here’s the really big news…

We are teaming up with The University of Chicago Press, and writing a book about spiders!

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

There are already some really amazing spider books out there – one of our favourites is Rich Bradley’s gem, Common Spiders of North America: it’s beautifully illustrated, rich and in-depth. For those looking to cuddle up with a microscope, there is “Spiders of North America: an identification manual“: that book can unleash your inner taxonomist and help you identify (to genus) most spiders of the region. There are also some regional field guides about spiders, photography books, and detailed books about spider silk, or about general spider biology.

However, more books about spiders are needed! There is so much to say! These amazing arachnids are one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with about 40,000 known species. They have the most unusual courtship and mating behaviours, and are often misunderstood, eliciting fear and loathing due to unwarranted fears about spider bites. Fundamentally, spiders are our friends and our goal with this project is to help share a fascination and love of these eight-legged marvels. We want all people to be familiar with the spiders they most commonly encounter, and when they bump into spiders as they move about the world, they’ll see friends and familiar faces instead of fangs. We want our book to be a non-technical primer of spiders and our goal is to bring awe and wonder, dispel myths, and help create an entire generation of arachnophiles. We hope to reach as broad an audience as possible, and teaming with University of Chicago Press will certainly help with this.

Our project will share stories about some of the most common spiders you will find in North America. Much like Eleanor’s ant books, we will research (using the primary literature) the life history and biology of common spiders in North America, and weave the science into a narrative about the species. We will unpack their biology, and write about spiders using accessible language. We’ll team up with our favourite photographers, and stunning images will accompany the text. Our hopes are that this book will complement the other books out there, and provide readers an accessible and fun-filled glimpse into the fascinating world of spiders.

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Calling all Arachnologists!

We can’t do this project alone and WE WANT YOU! This project will be bigger and better with your help. Although we would love to include ALL the common spiders in our backyards, local forests and fields, this would make the project a little too big… so we need to narrow down to a reasonable number of species. So, we would like to know what species you want to read about.

Do you want a chapter about the glorious Black-and-yellow garden spiders?

What about the Zebra spiders?

Surely you would like to hear more about black widows?

Please provide us some feedback in the comment section, below. Tell us what you want to read about, and what aspects of spider biology must be included in our book. We will take your feedback seriously and try to include your suggestions.

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Needless to say, we are SUPER excited about this project, and those of you that know us are already aware that we super-enthusiastic people to begin with, so this project has taken things to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT!!! We are so thankful for University of Chicago Press for the opportunity to tackle this project, and are already quick out of the starting gate: we have an upcoming writing retreat planned in March, and have already drafted some chapters. And in the coming months, we will certainly keep you updated on progress. We do hope you are as eager as us to see the finished project hit the bookshelves.

Spiderly, yours,

Chris & Eleanor

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