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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 2.51.17 PM

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

Expiscor (26 August 2013)

After various trips and adventures, regular editions of Expiscor are back… Here are some discoveries from the past week! Hope you enjoy…

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  • Here’s a shot of doing Entomology on the tundra. Entomology Yoga, anyone?
#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

  • Tweet of the week goes to Joshua Drew. Darn good advice!

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 10.42.28 AM

  • Snail trails. What a neat (and important) story. Here’s the video (check out at 3:08):

Expiscor (10 June 2013)

Here’s the 11th edition of Expiscor! Stories from nature and beyond.

I do apologize as this week’s edition is a little short (and probably contains a few errors)- mainly because I spent the weekend on my bike, doing the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour. I’m moving a little slow today after that 360 km in a saddle.  However, better some Expiscor than none at all, so here goes:

  • Poor spiders. Always getting a bad name. even from the weather channel!  Unnecessary hysteria, wrong facts, and NO spiders are poisonous (although some are venomous) (thanks to my spider-pal Sam Evans for that link)
  • Speaking of venomous spiders, Rick Vetter had another paper out, showing AGAIN that spiders bites are exceedingly rare, and, (I quote): methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as a ubiquitous cause of skin injury that is often mistaken as attributable to recluse bites.
  • So many arthropods. Amazing. Ones that I would like to see again would be Trilobites. Too bad they are extinct. At least we have people like Glendon Mellow drawing stunning pictures of these amazing animals (thanks, Glendon, for permission to repost! – folks – see here for more amazing things from Glendon)


  • Do you know about poison ivy? Can you identify it? Take this quiz. (it’s worth being educated on this topic!)
  • Speaking of twitter, it brings me many, many smiles. Here’s the funny tweet of the week, from Jules Bristow (remind you of this?)

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  • Driving on the left? Drive on the right?  Why the difference? Here’s a video to explain…
  • Spider versus Ants. Guess who wins….

It’s a wrap! How about a thesis on Arctic spiders? How about two of them…?

This week I am thrilled to report that two of my MSc students have successfully completed their degrees! Both the projects are part of the collaborative Northern Biodiversity Program – a project aimed to quantify and understand ecological change with Arthropods from Canada’s north.

A BIG congratulations to Sarah Loboda and Katie Sim  – they are both tremendously talented students, excellent Arachnologists, and wonderful people to know.  Last night we had our annual Lab BBQ – and at that event, I was pleased to give Sarah and Katie a small token of appreciation.  Here’s a photo showing them both with their wolf spider photographs (photos by the incredible Thomas Shahan):

Katie Sim (l) and Sarah Loboda (r) - successful MSc students!

Katie Sim (left) and Sarah Loboda (right) – successful (& happy) MSc students!

Sarah Loboda’s thesis is titled Multi-scale patterns of ground-dwelling spider (Araneae) diversity in northern Canada. Her research focused on broad diversity patterns of ground-dwelling spiders collected from our 12 study sites, spread across Canada’s north. Our project spanned 30 degrees of latitude and 80 degrees of longitude –> yes that is a lot of land area! Sarah identified over 300 spider species from 14 families, and over 23,000 individuals.  Publications are forthcoming so I won’t give details here, except to say that we can learn a lot about diversity patterns over broad spatial scales using a study taxon such as spiders.

Here's where the Northern Biodiversity Program took our field teams!

Here’s where the Northern Biodiversity Program took our field teams.

Katie’s work (co-supervised by Prof. Terry Wheeler) had a different slant, but was still on Arctic spiders. Her thesis is titled:  Genetic analysis of Pardosa wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) across the northern Nearctic. The first part of Katie’s thesis was about understanding the phylogeographic history of the Arctic spider Pardosa glacialis, with particular attention to post-glacial dispersal patterns, as inferred by population genetics. The second part of her thesis was focused on whether or not there is enough evidence to suggest two northern Pardosa species should remain as separate species, or be merged into one – based on both molecular and morphological characters.  Let’s just say that Katie had to be a ‘field genius‘, ‘lab genius‘ and ‘spider genitalia genius‘.  Here’s an example of what she looked at, a lot:

The epigynum of a wolf spider species, (part of) the topic of Katie's research.

The epigynum of a wolf spider species, (part of) the topic of Katie’s research.

In sum, I am thrilled to see Sarah and Katie finish up their work, although their success also comes with a touch of sadness, as I will miss their daily presence in the laboratory.  Stay tuned… we shall soon report all the details from their research.

Expiscor (27 May 2013)

Well, another week has passed. Perhaps you missed some neat links and stories?  Here’s a list of some interesting things I have come across from small animals to big science. Enjoy! (oh, and Happy Memorial Day to my American friends and Happy Bank Holiday to those in the UK)

  • The Wandering Leg Sausage.  That’s a common name for a species of African millipede. It’s latin name is also nice (Crurifarcimen vagans), but doesn’t quite stir up the imagination in the same way (Thanks Derek Hennen for that link)
  • Speaking of Latin names – Did you know that Carl Linnaeus’s birthday was on 23 May? Mark that in your calendar for next year!
  • More about names – how about studying species without names? Here’s a post from the Lindo soil ecology lab at Western University (yes, that is the new name for a University that is not actually in the ‘west’ of Canada).


  • Return of the Cicadas – this is really a stunning and beautiful video.

Return of the Cicadas from motionkicker on Vimeo.

  • What’s up with all the caterpillars? If you live in some parts of Canada, you may be up to your neck in them… here’s a terrific post by Dezene Huber on the topic. (and he’s welcoming your questions!)
  • More on Art, Design & Entomology from Bug Girl. (yes, those of you who are regular followers of Expiscor can see a pattern – Bug Girl is here a lot. And for good reason!)
  • Blue Frogs.  No, they are not sad. They are blue. A relative of mine asked about a blue treefrog she found in her backyard in Ontario. This got me into a fascinating discussion with my twitter pals (thanks in particular to Heidi, Germán, Rafael, and Kate!). Conclusion? Probably a rare “mutant” frog who may be missing the yellow pigment in its skin, resulting in blue colouration.  Here’s a photo in case you aren’t convinced:

This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

  • The most popular drink in Medieval Europe? I assumed wine or beer… no so!
  • Living in the cold: some fascinating results out about high Arctic bacterium – and lab who published this work is just one floor up from me. Congrats to the McGill team!
  • Fun with feathers – I visited the McGill Bird Observatory earlier this week. What a terrific resource – long-term monitoring of our winged friends is rather important and quite a suite of volunteers is helping to make this happen. A big thanks to Barbara Frei for letting me see the operations and help with a bit of data collection.
  • Whiz, Bang, Beakers & Blankets! My wife’s business (Organic Quilt Company) has some new science / geeky fabrics in stock.  Here’s a peek:
Organic Quilt Company - new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

Organic Quilt Company – new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

An indoor field trip: visiting Canada’s national spider collection

Last week I traveled up to Ottawa with two of my students – our goal was to visit the Arachnid collection at the Canadian National Collection of Insects (CNCI) (and Arachnids and Nematodes). The spider collection is housed on the fourth floor of the Neatby building, in a room that seldom has its lights turned on.  Canada’s National Spider collection has been without a curator since the 1990s, when Dr. Charles Dondale retired. In fact, his name is still on the door.

Dr. Dondale

The spider collection has historically been one of the finest, world-wide. It contains numerous type specimens, and houses thousands upon thousands of vials, all within stand-up cabinets. These vials contain rich biological information – they contain a spider with a species name, where it was found, who collected it, and when. These kinds of museum data are absolutely vital as we try to understand our biodiversity, and how it might be changing in the face of environmental stresses. Museum data form the basis of taxonomic revisions, and museum specimens (identified to species, by experts) are an important way for someone to learn taxonomy (that is how I did it!).

Our goal in the spider collection was to data-base some specimens – this means taking what is written on (old) labels, and entering data into a data-base (one that will eventually go on-line). On this trip, we were looking for some records of purse-web spiders in North America, and for northern black widow spider records. We also worked to database the jumping spiders (Salticidae), with a particular focus on those species occurring in Canada.

The task of data-basing.

The task of data-basing.

You might wonder why we would take time away from our own (busy) laboratory in Montreal to drive up to Ottawa to enter data; surely there are better uses of that precious resource of time (and money)?  Nope: A visit to the CNCI is always worth it.  Here’s why:

1. Label data are useful data! I have quite a few projects ongoing this summer, including a better understanding of the distribution of jumping spiders in Quebec. There’s no better way to find certain species than going to where they have been found before.  How do you know where they have been found before? Although much can be gleaned from publications, there are hundreds of specimens that have been collected and stored at the CNCI, but whose data has never been used in a publication. Looking at vials and reading labels is a good place to start, and while doing this, it only makes sense to enter the information into a data-base. It’s not exciting work, but having data digitally accessible allows my own research interests to move forward more effectively.

Treasures in the cabinet.

Treasures in the cabinet.

2. I’m an Arachnologist in Canada, and as such, I feel a responsibility to use the collection in Ottawa. The spider room at the CNCI is where (historically) Canada become a global leader in spider taxonomy. Charlie Dondale and others (notably James Redner) wrote some of the most important papers and books about spiders in North America, and their (free!) books remain a critical resource for Arachnologists throughout North America.  The hallowed grounds of the spider room are where much of this work occurred. It’s a special place, and one that is worth visiting.

3. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The future is not bright for this spider collection. Surprisingly, a replacement for Charlie has not be hired. We need an Arachnologist in Ottawa (I’ve written about this before). I worry deeply for this collection, and even a few visits per year are better than none at all – it shows there is still broader interest in the spider collection, and that it remains an important resource for people from other regions of Canada. Showing continual use and interest in the collection is a great way to show its value.

4. If it’s lost, let’s hope the data are not. Time for thinking about ‘worst case scenarios‘:  every time I am at the CNCI I see evidence of further degradation of the spider collection. Spiders are stored in ethanol, long-term, and without  curation the ethanol degrades, discolours, the specimens get brittle or break apart, the labels fade or become unreadable, or perhaps a vial or two break.  The spider collection has not receive high consistent curation for a very long time. At the very least, we better have the data from those specimens, and that requires data-basing.

Trouble in the collection: A vial with a cracked glass lip.

Trouble in the collection: A vial with a cracked glass lip.

In sum, the spider room at the CNCI is a national treasure and it was really great to be there. We didn’t get much done (only about a hundred specimens databased – and, truthfully, I did very little of the hard work – my students did all the heavy lifting).  But it was a start, and means that we’ll need to come back. I sincerely look forward to the next visit!

Expiscor (13 May 2013)

Start your week with some discoveries: from entomology to natural history, Academia & beyond! Expiscor – a weekly digest. (you can find past editions here).

  • In other entomology news, a paper about fatigue of insect cuticle. Yes, insects do wear out, eventually (mind you, it took 100,000 cycles before the wing samples failed!).
Photo by D. Llavaneras, reproduced here with permission.

Photo by D. Llavaneras, reproduced here with permission.

  • Hipsters – that was so last year. The current fad is clearly THRIPSTERS (again, Ainsley Seago show up in Expiscor!).
  • A milestone I’d rather we did not reach: Carbon dioxide levels pass 400 ppm. Not good news. So, I suppose I should not let my car idle while I stop in for groceries, right?
  • Muzzled Government scientists in Canada – here’s a must-read article on the topic from Maclean’s Magazine.  Here’s a quote from David Schindler: ‘They’re [the gov't] all for science that will produce widgets that they can sell and tax, but it’s clear that environmental scientists are lumped right down there with Greenpeace in their view’
  • Speaking of food, this photo essay has been around for a while, but worth a look – it’s all about how groceries for a week, from around the world.  Clearly quite a lot of us overeat.
  • Achoo! Allergy season is upon us here in the Montreal area – pollen counts are apparently ridiculously high this year (yes, you can get a ‘pollen report‘).  Here’s the hood of my car one morning last week:

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  • Where in the world am I?  Great little game using Google Street View. I spent a lot of time playing with this on the weekend – amazing to see what ‘clues’ tell you where you might be. Street signs, styles of the cars, electrical lines (above ground, or not?).
  • Here’s a nice idea: suspended coffee.  Buy an extra coffee for someone who may later come along and need a coffee but be unable to pay for it.
  • Good news for Dale Boyle (a guy with more than a few McGill connections). He’s a heck of a songwriter and that was recognized recently. Incidentally, he also sold me a guitar a few years back and that was a catalyst for me to start playing music again. Although this particular video doesn’t display his songwriting skills, it sure is lovely:

The case of the missing genitalia: copulation costs for male spiders

This post is written by Chris Buddle (Associate Professor, McGill University). This article was originally published in “The Canadian Arachnologist” – a newsletter about Arachnology in Canada (this newsletter is no longer being published). 

Spider sex can be a dangerous and costly venture, the classic example being the (often) misunderstood act of sexual cannibalism (e.g., the black widow spider). However, many of the costs for males are not always so obvious: during copulation, the emboli of some male spiders may break off, which results in the male being unable to properly re-fill his palpal organ and mate again (Foelix 1996). Without this ability, the male’s future is essentially an early retirement. While sorting and identifying spiders for my dissertation research, I noticed that male Cybaeopsis euopla (a ‘hackledmesh’ weaver spider) seemed to frequently be missing one or both of their pedipalps.  Could this be another example of a copulation cost?

Looking to the literature, missing pedipalps are documented with some species – tiny males from the sexually dimorphic genus Tidarren (Theridiidae) will remove their own palps and this increases their running speed considerably (Ramos et al. 2004). Working with the same genus, Knofach and van Harten (2001) observed that females remove one of the male’s palps ‘after achieving genitalia coupling’. The female then proceeds to eat the male, while the detached palp acts as both a mating plug and continues to inseminate the female! Something similar happens with the species Nephilengys malabarensis and this fascinating biology was reported by science bloggers such as Ed Yong. In the wolf spider (Lycosidae) Pardosa milvina, frequent palpal losses were observed and effects on courtship and mating were studied by Lynam et al. (2006). Perhaps not surprisingly, these authors report that ‘intact males were less likely to be cannibalized and suffered fewer predatory attacks by females than autotomized males’.

With that background, I began counting the frequency of missing pedipalps for a sub-sample of the specimens of C. euopla. The objective was to assess the percentage of males were missing right, left, or both pedipalps and see if this related to phenology or other life-history events.

The samples came from a mixed-wood forest at the George Lake Field Station, located about 75 km NW of Edmonton, Alberta. This mature mixed-wood forest is dominated by trembling aspen and balsam poplar. Samples were collected using standard pitfall traps, and were part of several other projects on spider assemblages in mixed-wood boreal forests (e.g., see Buddle 2001).

Cybaeopsis euopla - lovely little spiders! (Photo by C. Buddle)

Cybaeopsis euopla – lovely little spiders! (Photo by C. Buddle)

Cybaeopis euopla (Amaurobiidae) (formerly Callioplus euoplus) is widespread in Canada, ranging from the Maritimes to the far north-west (Leech 1972). Males are about 3.5 to 5 mm in length, and are pale orange to light brown in colour. Specimens are typically collected from the leaf-litter of closed-canopy deciduous forests (Leech 1972; Buddle et al. 2000). From a sample of 653 male C. euopla, I found a total of 309 (or 47%) to be missing either one or both pedipalps. This is an impressive number, and essentially means that about half the males in the population are missing the very parts of their bodies that are required for reproduction. Of the 309 that were missing pedipalps, 124 were missing the left pedipalp, 97 were missing the right pedipalp, and 88 were missing both. In virtually all cases, the pedipalp was severed at the trochanter-femur joint. So the most plausible explanations for missing pedipalps are:

  • Pedipalp autotomy occurs during the act of copulation
  • The female may remove the pedipalps before, during or after copulation
  • C. euopla males may use their pedipalps in antagonistic courtship behaviours
  • Perhaps pedipalps are frequently used to grapple with aggressive prey, and are thus damaged.

It would be difficult to relate missing pedipalps to the act of copulation without detailed studies of courtship and copulation in C. euopla. However, the fate of pedipalps could be determined indirectly if the frequency of missing pedipalps increased during the reproductive period. The period of reproduction for ground-dwelling spiders, such as C. euopla, can be assessed from the peak activity period for male and female spiders, inferred from a passive sampling technique such as pitfall trapping. Using a larger data-set for male and female C. euopla collected by pitfall traps set at the George Lake Field Station, it is evident that males are most active early in the season (early May through the end of June) (Figure 1). Females were found throughout the spring and summer months over two years, with a slight increase in late June (Figure 1). These results generally agree with Leech (1972), who suggests May and June are the main periods of activity for C. euopla. Thus, it is inferred that this species will mate primarily in the spring in central Alberta.

Fig 1

The next step is to ask whether the frequency of missing pedipalps is related to the hypothesized mating period. This was done by calculating the average percentage of males with missing pedipalps as a function of sampling date (Figure 2). In both sampling years, the percentage of males with missing pedipalps increased as the season progressed (Figure 2). Although the sample size for July samples was low (12 individuals), the average number missing pedipalps was over 80%. Furthermore, the earliest sampling date in 1999 (6 May), which collected over 200 individuals, had the lowest average percentage of males with missing pedipalps (< 20%). These results indirectly suggest that as the season progresses, and the spiders mate, males begin to lose their pedipalps. I can therefore likely exclude the possibility that palpal loss is related to aggressive prey, and the explanation is likely related to courtship or copulation.

Fig 2

This small study has raised as many questions as it has answered, and there are certainly other explanations that I have failed to mention. I invite fellow Arachnologists to comment on the phenomenon of missing pedipalps in C. euopla, and in other species.  I suspect pedipalp loss is widespread, but seriously understudied. Given this importance of palps to the fitness of spiders, future research is certainly warranted.


Buddle, C. (2001). Spiders (Araneae) associated with downed woody material in a deciduous forest in central Alberta, Canada Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 3 (4), 241-251 DOI: 10.1046/j.1461-9555.2001.00103.x

Buddle, C., Spence, J., & Langor, D. (2000). Succession of boreal forest spider assemblages following wildfire and harvesting Ecography, 23 (4), 424-436 DOI: 10.1034/j.1600-0587.2000.230405.x

Foelix, R.M. 1996. The Biology of Spiders. Oxford University Press.

Knoflach, B., & van Harten, A. (2001). Tidarren argo sp. nov. (Araneae: Theridiidae) and its exceptional copulatory behaviour: emasculation, male palpal organ as a mating plug and sexual cannibalism Journal of Zoology, 254 (4), 449-459 DOI: 10.1017/S0952836901000954

Leech, R. 1972. A revision of the nearctic Amaurobiidae (Arachnida: Araneida). Memoirs of the Entomological Society of Canada 84: 1-182.

Lynam, E., Owens, J., & Persons, M. (2006). The Influence of Pedipalp Autotomy on the Courtship and Mating Behavior of Pardosa milvina (Araneae: Lycosidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 19 (1), 63-75 DOI: 10.1007/s10905-005-9008-x

Ramos, M. (2004). Overcoming an evolutionary conflict: Removal of a reproductive organ greatly increases locomotor performance Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (14), 4883-4887 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0400324101


Expiscor (12 April 2013)

I am pleased to bring you the third edition of Expiscor – a weekly digest of discoveries and curiosities, from Arachnids, to natural history and beyond.  You can view previous postings here and here.

  • I’ve been editing work from two of my Master’s students who will soon be graduating – both on Arctic spiders – here are a couple of great quotes from their work, about spiders: “There are a recognized 43,244 species and sub-species of spider worldwide,  46% of which are described based on only one sex” and “18% of total linyphiid species in the world found north of 60°”  WOW – clearly much work is needed in Arachnology, and we ought to work in the North for some families.
A Solifugid - this stunning image is courtesy of Joe Lapp ("spider joe"), reproduced here with permission.

A Solifugid – this stunning image is courtesy of Joe Lapp (“spider joe”), reproduced here with permission.

  • Climate Change: it’s real.  It’s pervasive.  Not convinced?  Have a look at this – it’ll take you 26 seconds.
  • On a lighter note, do you like BRAINS?  Visit the Brain Museum….
  • And to finish, watch this if you need a laugh.  (Not for everybody, but this goofy, physical comedy with some biological realism made me chuckle out loud …and thanks CayBeach for tweeting about it)

The greatness of pseudoscorpions

As you know, I’m quite passionate about Arachnology, from spiders, to harvestmen and Pseudoscorpions.  These are all some of the creatures that fall into the category of the ‘obscure and amazing‘.  On the topic of pseudoscorpions, a few very fun and interesting things have happened recently, and enough to warrant a short blog post.  I also promised that I would post a few more videos related to some research activities on the hunt for pseudoscorpions in the Yukon.

1. Just look at this SEM of a pseudoscorpion!

A little while ago, my Arachnid friends and colleagues from Alberta, Heather Proctor and Dave Walter, forwarded me a stunning image of a pseudoscorpion taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM).  Dave was kind enough to give me permission to share it here:

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) - copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) – copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

There really is something lovely about getting up close and personal with these little Arachnids. I don’t know this species, but it’s definitely in the family Chernetidae – a relatively diverse family, quite common across Canada.  My favourite Yukon species, Wyochernes asiaticus, is also a Chernetid.   Dave Walter really does some magic with his SEM images, and you are encouraged to check out is macromite blog (his home bug garden blog is also worth a peek!).

2.  Just look at these videos about collecting pseudoscropions in the wild! 

Speaking of my favourite Yukon species, I took a lot of videos of field work in the Yukon last summer and I wanted to share a few with you, here.  Although our larger purpose for the trip was to complete some follow-up field work for the Northern Biodiversity Program, I also wanted to collect additional specimens of a wonderful pseudoscorpion species.  The first video provides some context to the work, and gives you a bit of a flavour of the landscape up near the Yukon – Northwest Territory border in Canada:

Typically, pseudoscorpions are not that commonly encountered.  In my experience, when they are encountered, you tend to see one or two.  What is truly amazing is the sheer abundance of this species found under rocks in creek/river beds in the Yukon.  Furthermore, you can see and collect multiple life stages, including females with eggs.  This short video gives a taste for this abundance.

The third and final video is a big goofy, and highlight the ‘collecting gear’ and appropriate field attire for becoming a “pseudoscorpion hunter“.  I am continually on a crusade to help generate enthusiasm for Arachnids, whether it is dispelling myths, or trying to inspire others to become Arachnologists (you know, we do need Arachnologists in Canada!).

One important caveat:  you may NOT simply run to the Yukon and flip rocks to collect pseudoscorpions – many parts of the world, including the Yukon, have strict guidelines about what you can collect.  Permits are required, and be sure to check into this before you plan on becoming an Arachnologist!

3.  Just look at this pseudoscorpion necklace!

To further illustrate my rather quirky obsession, I managed to find a wonderful person on Etsy who was able to make me a pendant with a pseudoscorpion design:

The pseudoscorpion necklace.  You want one.

The pseudoscorpion necklace. You want one.

Not only that, this design is actually from a photography I took a few years ago, and is an accurate depiction of the cosmopoliton species Chelifer cancroides.

Chelifer cancroides - my photo which was used to design the pendant

Chelifer cancroides – my photo which was used to design the pendant

I KNOW you want to get yourself one of these… start a conversation with Lynn.  Get yourself one of these necklaces and stand proud with other pseudoscorpionologists!

In sum, I do hope you find this post interesting, hopefully fun, and has whetted your appetite from more information about curious critters.

Stay tuned… I will continue to post more about Arachnids…