Spiderday (the fifth)

Here’s your fifth instalment of SPIDERDAY here on the arthropod ecology blog: all the arachnid links from last week:

Pseudoscorpions 'catching a ride' on an insect. Photo by Sean McCann

Pseudoscorpions ‘catching a ride’ on an insect. Photo by Sean McCann

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© C.M. Buddle

Spiderday (the fourth)

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

First, amazing image of a developing spider:

Yes, they are adorable. (also, Chululu)

Yes, they are adorable. (also, Cthulhu)

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

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

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Unanswered (Arachnological) research questions

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

Disclaimers:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A cute little zebra jumper! Photo by Alex Wild.

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

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

Ok, that’s it for now…

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

———

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

© C.M. Buddle

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!

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…

Notes from the field: Yukon wildlife (Part 1)

This is the first of a three-part series that was originally published (as one article) in the McGill Reporter, as part of their “notes from the field” section – it is an account of my research trip to the  Yukon, back in July.  It is reproduced here, with permission.  For a different (yet complementary!) account of this field trip, see The Bug Geek’s blog posts, Part 1 and Part 2.

MSc student Katie Sim searching for wolf spiders in the Yukon, among fields of cottongrass

8 July 2012, 10 PM, The Westmark Hotel, Whitehorse Yukon

Our entomology research team has just arrived in Whitehorse in anticipation of our upcoming fieldwork in the Yukon.  I just returned to my room after enjoying a beer at the hotel bar where we completed our GIANT shopping list this evening. Tomorrow morning we are picking up our RV, and will be driving about 500 km NW of Whitehorse (on paved roads) before turning onto the Dempster Highway – this famous Yukon road is a dusty, gravel road that heads straight up towards the Northwest Territory, crossing the Arctic Circle, and taking you from boreal spruce forests in the south to sub-arctic tundra in the North.  The Dempster crosses the Yukon-Northwest Territory border at about kilometer 465, and then continues on to Inuvik.   It’s a big trip with few opportunities for groceries along the way.  We are all part of the Northern Biodiversity Program – a multi-University collaborative project about the diversity of insects and spiders in Canada’s North.   After months of planning, applying for research permits, and fine-tuning our methods, it is great to finally be here.  That being said, I worry that the excitement and anticipation will keep us too jittery to get a good night’s sleep tonight – too bad since after tonight, we’ll be sleeping in tents rather than hotel rooms!

10 July 2012, 3 PM, Tombstone Campground, km 72 (Dempster Highway), Yukon

We have made it up to the Tombstone mountain range, about 75 km up the Dempster Highway.  Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperative, so we are stuck in the campground, huddling in a cook-shack with other travelers.  Most of the other campers are on vacation, so we are unusual since our trip is for research.  We are also unusual because unlike most visitors to this part of the world, we are NOT viewing large wildlife (bears, moose) but are instead spending our time searching for the tiny wildlife along the Dempster highway.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing insect traps on the Yukon Tundra

Our team includes two graduate students from my laboratory, Crystal Ernst and Katie Sim.  Crystal has been setting out “pan traps” (yellow bowls) to collect ground-dwelling arthropods (i.e., insects, spiders).  Part of her PhD is about unraveling some of the complexities of arthropod-based food webs in the Arctic, and she is using these traps to collect critters that live on the tundra.  Thankfully, her work does not require good weather!  Katie is working on the population genetics of a high arctic wolf spider, Pardosa glacialis – and she needs some more specimens.  We know that the species occurs near the Yukon-NWT border (in the Richardson mountains), about 300 km north of us.  A post-doc, Dr. Laura Timms, is part of our team also – she studies plant-insect interactions in the North, and is focusing her research on insects that feed on Willow and Balsam Poplar trees.  Our final team member is Dr. Barb Sharanowski, an entomology professor from the University of Manitoba – she is collecting parasitic wasps, with a goal of better understanding their evolution and diversity in northern environments.  Unfortunately, Barb and Laura’s work is dependent on dry and warm weather, so they are hoping for good conditions!

I am here to find a small (< 4 mm) and curious Arachnid known as the “Arctic pseudoscorpion“.  Pseudoscorpions are relatives of other Arachnids, and resemble scorpions, but without a tail.  They are predators (of other invertebrates) that live in soil, leaf-litter, under bark, and under rocks.  The species Wyochernes asiaticus lives under rocks beside creeks and rivers in the Yukon.  It is a Beringian species, meaning it exists in North America in regions that were unglaciated during the last ice age, including many regions in the Yukon. The Dempster Highway travels directly through a lot of these regions.   I have previously collected this species in the Yukon, and on this trip, I am hoping to gather more specimens to further understand its full distribution, and to collect data about its biology and life-history.

This morning, despite the rain, our team traveled to a half-dozen streams further south from this campground, and we had great success in pseudoscorpion hunting!  Numerous specimens were found under rocks beside creeks, including females with their eggs held under their abdomen.

We are now drying out and I am about to finish preparing a seminar that our team will deliver tomorrow at the campsite.  The Tombstone Park staff are keen to have researchers discuss their work with the general public – it’s a nice opportunity to share our research stories with other people traveling the Dempster.  I am always thrilled that all types of audiences show keen interest and enthusiasm about insects and spiders.

Stay tuned…later this week will be Parts 2 and 3

Why I study obscure and strange little animals

I sometimes find myself defending why I study obscure and strange little animals.  Questions such as “what good are they” are asked of me.  I sometimes get weird looks when I describe what it is like discovering new distribution records of a tiny jumping spider, or the thrilling anticipation of turning over a rock to see what hides underneath.  I have to remind myself that not everyone is fascinated by the natural world.  I also think it is worthwhile reminding myself why I study small animals. Here is a list:

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

I study these animals because they are there even if we can’t always see them.

I study these animals because they are unknown, and stir up a sense of curiosity, wonder and awe; their biology is as amazing as any other species.

I study these animals because they play important roles in their ecosystems; roles that we have yet to fully understand.

I study these animals because they are one piece of a giant biodiversity puzzle – they are as interesting and fascinating as primates, blue whales, oak trees, honey bees, or coral reefs.  

I study small animals because they are giants in their own world; size is relative.

I study these animals because they are beautiful; they are a landscape painting; they are a a Bach Cello Suite; they are millimetres of perfection.

I study these animals because they have a history; a history as great as their larger cousins; they are evolution exemplified.

I study these animals because nobody else does.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

What are your reasons for studying small, strange animals?

(thanks to Crystal Ernst for the stunning photographs of Wyochernes asiaticus – these photos were taken on our recent field trip to the Yukon)