Congratulations to the new Doctor of spider behaviour

I’m delighted to announce that lab member Raphaël Royauté successfully defended his PhD yesterday….  and he did it with grace, maturity, and poise. The defence was fair, but tough, and Raphael was able to show his breadth and depth of expertise on the broad topic of behaviour in arthropods.

Raphaël’s thesis was titled “Factors influencing behavioural variation in apple orchard populations of the jumping spider Eris militaris (Araneae: Salticidae)” and the during the defence, he was asked (not by me, remarkably!) to offer a ‘tweet’ of the his thesis. Here it is, coming in at almost exactly 140 characters.

Raph's thesis, in a tweet.

Raph’s thesis, in a tweet.

So, his research looked at behavioural syndromes in this remarkable jumping spider: Raphaël collected spiders in apple orchards, maintained them in a laboratory and ran them through a battery of behavioural test. He defined behaviours, looked at correlations among these behaviours (sometimes called ‘personality’), and how these traits varied during the development of individuals, consistency of these behaviours and whether behaviours differed depending on whether the spiders came from insecticide-free on insecticide-treated orchards.  Raphaël also looked at the direct effect of sub-lethel effects of insecticides on behaviour and will soon be publishing the ways that insecticides mess up their personalities.

Raphaël has really done incredible work – but looking back, I should not be surprised. Soon after he arrived in the lab we worked together on a short project about the activity of spiders right after snowmelt, at at that point, I was impressed with his intellectual curiosity, drive and motivation, and overall approach to scientific research.

Raphael and me, in 2008

Working together on Raph’s first project at McGill

After that first project, Raphaël came back to McGill to work on a PhD with me and Dr. Charles Vincent as co-supervisors. And now, many years later, he is now successfully defended a PhD. What a marvellous journey, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned far more from Raphaël than he could have learned from me.

Good luck Raph! (And you’ll be missed in the lab)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

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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Expiscor (28 October 2013)

Welcome to Expiscor! All sorts of discoveries… at your fingertips.

  • Speaking of images from that workshop, here’s a black widow for you, taken by Alex (thanks for the permission to use your photos here, Alex!)

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  • The latin name discussion came in part from the best hashtag I’ve seen in a while – #ReplaceWordsWithBugs. This also made it difficult to highlight a tweet of the week. Even though there is debate about how to pronounce “…..dae” at the end of family names, this is still a winner, from Adrian Tchaikovsky:

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  • In the spirit of Halloween… BLOODY FINGERS! Yum yum.

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  • Students text a lot during class. In my opinion, this means there’s also a problem with the content and/or instructor. Students need to engage, but Profs must also adapt. Right -so I will have to write  blog post on this (stay tuned)
  • Here’s a Halloween-themed “Simon’s Cat”, featuring a spider:

Expiscor (7 October 2013)

Another week has passed… here are some discoveries!

  • Speaking of bugshot, here’s one of Nash Turley‘s pics from that adventure (Thanks, Nash, for letting me post it here!)

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  • Students in my intro Entomology class are teaching me a lot (they are lecturing on the Insect Orders). Last week, I learned of Desert Locusts that can swim, underwater. (note: they ‘can’ but they don’t necessarily ‘do’ the swimming.)
  • My students also told me of the hip, cool family of Orthoptera called…. Cooloolidae. Yeah, that’s awesome.
  • You like ants?  What about a jumping spider that looks like an ant? Here you go:
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)

  • Tweet of the week goes to …  Erin McKiernan. This is awesome. Don’t worry: My neighbours think I’m crazy too. I’ve been caught running up and down the street with a sweep net.

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  • On robots: here’s a Wild Cat: This is both terrifying and amazing:

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.

Expiscor (30 September 2013)

Expiscor – your voyage of discovery: bugs, biology and beyond!

Here’s what I stumbled across this week:

  • Ah, Botflies. Gross or cool? For entomologists, this is some pretty amazing stuff.
  • The amazing Ainsley Seago knows how to draw spiders. Here is one of her pieces; perfect for Archnophiles:
A male peacock spider (Maratus amabiis), doing his dance. [by A. Seago, reproduced here with permission]

A male peacock spider (Maratus amabiis), doing his dance. [by A. Seago, reproduced here with permission]

  • Better beetle news: here’s a nice wood-boring beetle, and one that is sexual dimorphic.
  • A lovely image from Sean McCann, showing a moulting Opiliones. (Thanks, Sean, for allowing me to share it here)

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  • To finish, more on the peacock spiders (last week I was teaching about courtship behaviours in arthropods, and that discussion is not complete without viewing this video!):

Expiscor (23 September 2013)

Still going strong! (If I counted properly, this is the 25th edition of Expiscor). Bringing you weird and wonderful discoveries each week.  Thanks to everyone who continues to provide great content AND reads this link-fest.

Here are some things I stumbled across this week:

  • Bites from black widows.. a worthy read on the topic.  Note these important sentences: “But despite their fearsome reputation, black widows are surprisingly shy and retiring. Over the course of your life, you have probably walked past hundreds of black widows without even realizing it
  • Right, so now you are ready for a jumping spider photograph, courtesy of Tom Houslay (thanks, Tom, for permission to post it here!)
Phidippus regius, by T. Housley

Phidippus regius having lunch, by T. Housley

  • Want another beautiful insect, here’s a photo of Megalopyge opercularis [YES, THIS IS A CATERPILLAR!] courtesy of Matt Bertone. Um, despite its cute, furry and cuddly appearance, don’t play with it, please. (thanks Matt, for allowing me to post your image here)

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  • Sick pets make us think about why we empathize with animals. Malcolm Campbell wrote an excellent post on the topic. And he even quotes E.T. in the blog post (I remember that movie well…)
  • On the topic of personal stories, a very lovely post over at the boreal beetle: “My Voyage(er)”
  • Tweet of the week to… Amy Brown – I like this idea!

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  • Peripheral vision is weird. Don’t believe me? Go here.
  • To finish, so proud of my son, aspiring guitarist. Here he is, rockin’ out (with one of his friends on drums, and his guitar instructor on bass):