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

Spiderday (the second)

Welcome to the second edition of Spiderday! (here’s the first one): a weekly round-up of neat stories about Arachnids.

First up, an amazing shot of fishing spider, from Nash Turley!

A Pisauridae spider, photo by Nash Turley (reproduced here with permission)

A Pisauridae spider, photo by Nash Turley (reproduced here with permission)

Here are some links I stumbled across this week:

KnowledgeGraph_Spiders

Beetles from the North

I’m super-excited to announce new research from the lab, published yesterday with lead author Dr. Crystal Ernst.

Crystal’s paper focused on taxonomic and functional diversity of beetles across 12 sites in northern Canada, ranging from Labrador to the Yukon Territory, and from the bottom of James Bay all the way up to the tip of Ellesmere Island. This work is result of the Northern Biodiversity Program: a multi-institutional collaborative project about the ecological structure of northern Arthropods.

Crystal Ernst, on the tundra.

Crystal Ernst, on the tundra.

The paper was titled “Drivers and Patterns of Ground-Dwelling Beetle Biodiversity across Northern Canada” and in this research Crystal sorted and identified over 9,000 beetles from 464 species, and she classified the species by their functional ecology to assess how functional diversity may vary across the large spatial scale of this project. Instead of re-writing a summary here, I thought to use this blog post as an opportunity to reflect on what I see as the critical findings from this work, and why this is a paper that I’m incredible proud to be a part of.

  • To me, one of the more interesting findings of this work was that the functional diversity of beetles varied by latitude: although beetles do many things (e.g., herbivore, decomposers, carnivores), it doesn’t seem like all these functions happen at all latitudes. For example, although we document an impressive number of carnivores at all the sites, they are relatively more common in the more northern locations. This is a bit peculiar, and suggests that food-webs involving arthropods vary in some important ways depending on the biome. We also document that temperature is a major explanatory variable when considering functional diversity, which raises the important question about potential effects due to climate change. Indeed, should temperatures change in the north, this may affect the functional ecology of beetles, which in turn could affect other parts of the system.

 

Figure 1 from the paper: Fig 1. Map of the 12 study locations (North Pole Azimuthal projection), showing the spatial distribution of functional groups. These were pooled into trophic groups, and the pie charts show the proportion of the total site biomass represented by each trophic group

Figure 1 from the paper: Fig 1. Map of the 12 study locations, showing the spatial distribution of functional groups. These were pooled into trophic groups, and the pie charts show the proportion of the total site biomass represented by each trophic group

  • The research generally supported the well-known pattern in biogeography about how species richness decreases at more northern latitudes. When looking at which environmental variable may explain this pattern, temperature again came out on top. In other words, what beetles are found where is in part due to the temperatures in that region. Climate change scenarios therefore have significant potential effects on beetles in the north: beetles, like most other arthropods, are tightly linked to temperature. Even small changes in temperatures in the north may have big consequences for beetles.
  • One of the other big findings, to me, was the fundamental value of species-level data for an important taxa, across vast areas of Canada. Crystal recorded new Territorial and Provincial records for 15 beetle species, increasing knowledge about northern biodiversity. I’m also pleased that the data are fully available on-line, via Canadensys, so other researchers can access the information, re-analyze data, and benefit from and build upon this work.
  • The Arctic is special: it is a vast, cold, treeless landscape, with blankets of tundra, and permafrost underfoot. But it’s also special for beetles. After Crystal analyzed the community-level beetle data, using ordination methods, it became apparent that assemblages from the Arctic Islands of Canada were distinct from the sub-Arctic and north-Boreal sites. From a conservation perspective this is quite important. To some, the Arctic may come across as a big, ‘life-less’ region, with the odd polar bear roaming about, but in reality it hosts thousands of species, including hundreds of beetle species, and that beetle community is very different from what we find in other parts of North America. Special things deserve recognition and protection.
  • Every journalist I talked to has asked “Why beetles?” This is an easy one to answer: they fill virtually all roles in ecosystems, they are diverse, they are of interest to many people, and they are beautiful. The latter point is an important one, as it is important to capture curiosity and fascination about arthropods.

 

Carabus vietinghoffi. Photo by Henri Goulet.

A northern beetle: Carabus vietinghoffi. Photo by Henri Goulet.

In sum, this was a terrific project to be involved with, and our lab (and our collaborators) are thrilled that the efforts from the Northern Biodiversity program are showing up in the literature (for more examples, check out this, or this).

And rest assured, there’s more to come…

Taxonomist envy and the importance of names

Imagine: seeking, finding, watching, sampling, measuring, comparing, analyzing, imaging and… naming.

These goodies are all part of taxonomy. As Wikipedia defines it, taxonomy “is the science of defining groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics and giving names to those groups.”

Taxonomists are the true explorers at the foundation of biodiversity science: they are to be appreciated, and I’m envious of their discoveries.

I’ve always been a collector and sorter and feel some kinship towards taxonomists: although when I was young I engaged more in the process of categorizing ‘non-living’ things such as sticks, stamps, coins or rocks. But there were comparisons of shared characteristics: some rocks were pink, with lightening-strikes of white crystal; some rocks were angular and sharp, some were smooth, shaped by time and oceans. Perhaps it’s not surprising that during my PhD I thoroughly enjoyed sorting and identifying almost 30,000 spiders from Canada’s boreal forest. It brought back good memories from my childhood: it felt right.

It matters that this is Arctosa hirtipes instead of "Wolf spider species X"

It matters that this is Alopecosa hirtipes instead of “Wolf spider species X”

I think my experiences are shared with some of my ecology colleagues, especially those who also call themselves ornithologists, mammalogists, or entomologists: many of us like ‘species’, and their names. We think about interesting species in our study systems, and think about similarities and differences, about a place’s history with its species, and the relationship to other species or spaces nearby, upstream of downstream.

But I, like most of my ecology colleagues, are not taxonomists. Instead we exploit and repurpose the good work done by taxonomists (and often not citing their work – oops!). For a concrete example from my own experience: without the taxonomic expertise of great Canadian arachnologists such as Charles Dondale, and colleagues, who described species and then wrote accessible taxonomic keys, my work would be of much lower value. The keys allowed me to get names on things. These names increase the value of the work tremendously.

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Let’s look closely at this value: Surely it would be possible have the same main results from my ecological work without having the actual species names? Surely I could have called everything by my own pretend name – a secret code that I could develop – a series of ‘morphospecies’. And, these days, I could have a long code to represent a barcode. Isn’t that enough? In truth, the broad community patterns that I sometimes publish about don’t depend on the names. Rather, these community patterns depend on recognition of different types of things, but the names themselves don’t drive the patterns.

While it’s true that names are only one part of my ecological research, they are a very important part. They provide an important common ground for understanding our biodiversity – they allow us to compare apples to apples in all the right ways. The names are a doorway into a rich history, a life story that perhaps goes back hundreds of years in the literature. It means more to know that Alopecosa hirtipes is running around the Arctic tundra than it does to know it is ‘Wolf spider species X’.

But the name comes at a cost: it means that someone spent their time searching, watching, measuring and comparing; looking at shared characteristics, and putting the species in an evolutionary framework, and perhaps producing a valuable taxonomic key so free-loading ecologists like me can stick a name on ‘Wolf spider species X’. The cost is worth it: taxonomists are as valuable to science as are ecologists, molecular biologists, or physicists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

Taxonomy is a science that is relevant and important, and despite increased availability of molecular tools, names still matter. We need taxonomists to be our quality control, and bring sense and order to strings of code in GenBank, and help us compare and connect across systems, or among similar habitats. We need the full package figured out for a species: specimens, meta-data, barcodes and names. After that, we need to go further and assess evolutionary history and test hypotheses about relationships among species.

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day, but let’s make sure it’s more than one day. Let’s make it something we think about every day: every time we see a Corvus corax fly by, or see a Chelifer cancroides on the wall of our bathroom, let’s remember that every name has a story, and the narrative is brought to life because of taxonomists.

Under the influence: how insecticides affect jumping spider personalities (Part 2)

This post is written by former PhD student Raphaël Royauté, and is a plain-language summary for our most recent article titled: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider

It’s well known that personalities can shift and change when we are ‘under the influence’ of chemicals, be it drugs or alcohol. As entomologists, we also consider this question for the insects and spiders that live among us: although we assume arthropods can similarly be affected by chemicals in their environment, it’s less clear how these chemicals may affect the personalities of these arthropods. We tested the effects of insecticide residues on the personalities of a jumping spider known to live in apple orchards. We found that individual-based personality shifts occurred when spiders were exposed to sub-lethal doses of an insecticide. This mean that even before we might see ‘population-level’ effects of insecticides on an important predator in agro-ecosystems, individual spiders themselves get, um, sort of messed up when under the influence.

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

Insecticides are often used in agriculture for various reasons, but can have negative effects on the ‘non-target’ fauna living in our agricultural fields. One of the most important challenges in evaluating their toxicity is that these chemicals can persist at low concentration in the environment. These concentrations are unlikely to kill exposed organisms but may substantially alter behaviours. Most of our evidence of the toxicity of insecticides on behaviours comes from studies on pollinators and research has shown decreases in spatial memory and learning capacities.

There remain gaps in our knowledge about how other types of organisms respond to these compounds. Studies on insecticide toxicity may be also limited because they tend to ignore how insecticides shape variation in behaviour. This is important because individuals differ in their behavioural tendencies and may not have the same weight in ecological processes: some individuals are more active, show more aggressiveness or consume more food. Personality traits can also be inter-related and form “behavioural syndromes”: clusters of behavioural traits that are correlated and evolve as a package. If personality traits are interconnected, any insecticide modifying one trait is likely to alter the whole syndrome. We’ve shown previously that behavioural syndromes differed between populations exposed and unexposed to insecticides in the Bronze Jumping Spider, a species common in apple orchards and known to prey on several economically important pests. But those populations could be different for a variety of reasons: for example, perhaps the insecticides affect spider behaviours because there is simply less food available in insecticide-exposed areas for example.

We wanted to test if insecticides could be directly responsible for the shifts in personality and behavioural syndromes we noticed. In other words, when a spider is “under the influence” of insecticides, is it still behaving according to its personality type?

The similarities between insecticides and drugs is fascinating: Both types of compounds target the nervous system, both can affect behaviours and both can kill above a certain lethal dose. In fact caffeine and nicotine evolved as natural plant defenses against insect herbivory and the latter was one of the first insecticides ever used. As crazy as it sounds, the effect of psychoactive drugs has been investigated in spiders in the past! The legend goes that, back in 1948, zoologist H. M. Peters was annoyed by his garden spiders spinning webs at “such ungodly hours” (2 am-5am). He wanted to found a compound that would shift the spinning behaviour to more a “decent” schedule, and he asked pharmacologist Peter N. Witt for help. Witt tried different psychoactive compounds on the spiders, including caffeine, LSD and marijuana but couldn’t produce the desired effect. What he found was in fact much more interesting: each compounds produced a distinct type of “drug web”, altering its shape, size or regularity ! (from Foelix’s “Biology of Spiders”) More recent research has shown that some commonly used insecticides affect web building in the same way drugs do.

We focused on how activity and prey capture capacities were affected by exposure to a widely used insecticide (phosmet) in the Bronze Jumping Spider. We tested activity and prey capture before and after exposure the insecticide and compared the amount of behavioural variation with that of a control group. Doing research in ecology sometimes requires using original equipment. In our case we found that the best way to expose our spiders to the insecticide was to use a hotdog warmer! We applied the insecticide solution on test tubes and used the rotation of the hotdog machine to get a homogeneous surface coated with dry insecticide residues. This allowed us to have a more precise control of the dose that each spider received while simulating field exposure conditions.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer. (photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

We did not found any effect of the insecticide on average behaviour between treatments but the ranking of individuals was strongly affected after insecticide exposure. In general spiders exposed to the insecticide were more variable in their behavioural tendencies. This suggests that the effects of insecticides on personality differences may manifest before any effects on the population as a whole are detected, in which case scientists may be frequently underestimating the toxicity of insecticides. Another puzzling result was that males and females did not respond in the same way to insecticide exposure. Males were most affected in the way they explored their environment but their capacity to capture prey remained intact. Females instead showed a decrease in the strength of the activity-prey capture syndrome.

Spiders play an important role in agricultural fields as they help regulate pest outbreaks. By altering personality differences and their syndromes, insecticides may limit spiders’ capacity to provide this important ecosystem service in subtle ways. As usual, this research leads to more questions than answers. At the organism’s level, it is important to understand how long these personality shifts last for. Do these shifts vary depending on how frequently spiders get exposed to insecticide or to what types of insecticides they are exposed to? How do they ultimately affect a spider’s capacity to escape predators, capture prey or reproduce depending on the individual’s personality? At the ecosystem level, prey get exposed to insecticides too, what happens to the predator-prey dynamics when the personality of both prey and predator is affected? How does that translate into biocontrol services? These are all important questions that I hope to contribute to in the future. Stay tuned!

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

References:

Royauté, R., CM Buddle & C. Vincent: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider. Functional Ecology. . http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12413

Godfray, H.C.J., T. Blacquiere, L.M. Field, R.S.Hails, G. Petrokofsky, S.G. Potts, N.E. Raine, A.J. Vanbergen & A.R. McLean. 2014. A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 40558 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0558

Royaute, R., C.M. Buddle & C. Vincent. 2014. Interpopulation Variations in Behavioral Syndromes of a Jumping Spider from Insecticide-Treated and Insecticide-Free Orchards. Ethology. 120, 127-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/eth.12185

Nathanson, J.A. 1984. Caffeine and related methylxanthines: possible naturally occurring pesticides. Science. 226, 184-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.6207592

Rainer F. Foelix (2010). Biology of spiders. Oxford University Press. p. 179.

Samu & Vollrath. 1992. Spider orb web as bioassay for pesticide side effects. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. 62, 117-124. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1570-7458.1992.tb00650.x

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

/\/\o00o/\/\

Studying natural history by stealth

Natural history can be defined as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature. I see natural history research as a more formal and structured approach to studying and recording the natural world. I also see this kind of research as a branch science that is often driven by pure curiosity. Many well-known and popular scientists are naturalists (ever hear of David Attenborough or E.O. Wilson?), and we can see that curiosity is one of the underpinnings of their work and personalities. Natural history research is, without doubt, very important, but in world of academic research, it sure doesn’t headline as pulling in multi-million dollar grants, nor does “natural history” appear in the titles of high profile research papers.

Is there a place for curiosity-driven natural-history research in today’s science? If so, how do we study it in the current climate of research?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research... just because?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research… just because?

This is big question, and one that we grapple with occasionally during my lab meetings. Most recently this came up because I challenged one of my students when they wrote about how important their research was because “…it hadn’t been done before“. In the margin of their work, I wrote “…so what? You need to explain how your work advances the discipline, and the explicit reasons how your research is important independent of whether or not it has been done before“.

Am I wrong? Is it acceptable to justify our research endeavours because they haven’t been done before?

The context matters, of course: some disciplines are very applied, and the funding model may be such that all or most research is directed, project-oriented. The research may have specific deliverables that have importance because of, perhaps, broader policies, stakeholder interests, or needs of industry. In other fields, this is less clear, and when working in the area of biodiversity science, such as I do, we constantly stumble across things that are new because they haven’t been studied before. And a lot of these ‘discoveries’ result from asking some rather basic questions about the natural history or distribution of a species. These are often things that were not part of the original research objectives for a project. Much of natural history research is about discovering things that have never been known before and this may be part of the reason why natural history research isn’t particularly high-profile.

Here are just a few examples of interesting natural history observations from our work in the Arctic:

This is the first time we observed the spider species Pachygnatha clerki on the Arctic islands!

Wow, we now know that an unknown parasitoid species frequently parasitizes the egg sacs of a northern wolf spider species!

Females of this little pseudoscorpion species produce far more offspring than what had been previously documented!

Now, if I wanted to follow-up on any of these observations, I think it’s fair to state that the research would be curiosity-driven, and not necessarily grounded in a theoretical or conceptual framework. It’s the kind of research that can be rather difficult to get funded. It’s also the kind of research that is fulfilling, and a heck of a lot fun.

I'm likin' these lichens. And surely data about them is required...

I’m likin’ these lichens. And surely data about them is required…

How then do you study such fascinating aspects of natural history? How do you get out to the field to just watch stuff; record observations just for the sake of it; spend time tabulating life history parameters of a species just because it’s interesting?

Perhaps you have the luxury of doing natural history research as your full-time job: You may be able to sit back and have people send you specimens from around the world, and maybe go out on an extended collecting trip yourself. You may be lucky enough (and wealthy enough?) to devote serious amounts of time to “think”, measure and record data about species. Perhaps you can even take a long walk each day to mull over your observations. Maybe you will gather enough observations to eventually pull together some generalities and theories, and perhaps you will get around to writing a book or manuscript about this….

Reality check: Most of us don’t have that luxury. Instead, we chase grants, supervise students, do projects that fit in with our unit’s research area, and publish-or-perish in the current model of academic research. Despite how we might long for the “good old days” of academia, they are gone (at least in my discipline). It’s rare that a University Professor or research scientist is hired to do stuff just to satisfy her or his own curiosity.

That main sound depressing to some, and hopeless, but it’s not meant to be. I do believe there are still ways to do exciting and interesting natural history research, and we can call it research by stealth.

In my field of study, establishing a research programs means getting grant money, and these are often aligned with priorities that matter to government, to policy, or to a particular environmental threat such as climate change or invasive species. It’s important to get these grants, and work with students and collaborators to try to solve some of the large and complex problems of the world. I am not advocating avoiding this. Instead, as we move along with these big projects, there are also countless opportunities to do a little natural history research, by stealth. Our first priority may not be the collection of natural history data, but nothing stops us from finding creative ways to make careful and meaningful natural history observations.

When taking a lunch break on the tundra, take a little longer to watch the Bombus flying by, or write down some observations about the bird fauna in your local study site, even if you aren’t an ornithologist. Keep a journal or sketch a few observations while you are sitting in the back of the field truck on that long drive up to the black spruce bogs. Each year, buy a field guide for a different taxon, and learn new stuff alongside your focused project. This ‘spirit’ of natural history observation is one that I promote to my own students, and I encourage them to follow up on some of these as a side-project to their main thesis research. Often, these end up being published, and end up in a thesis, and they certainly end up informing us more about our study species or study area.

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Despite writing all of this, I still think my comment in my student’s writing will remain: we have to look at the importance of our research in the context of the bigger picture – it’s not enough to say something is important because it hasn’t been done before, and I’m not sure a PhD thesis can (or should) be entirely based on natural history observation. I would not be doing my job as a supervisor if I promoted curiosity-driven natural history research as the top priority for my student’s projects. To be candid: they won’t get jobs or publish papers in the higher profile journals (i.e., those ones that matter to search committees), and they won’t be well equipped when they leave my lab and head to another institution.

…But I will promote natural history research by stealth.

I think there is loads of room for curiosity-driven natural history research in today’s science. We may need to be creative in how we approach this, but, in the end, it will be worth it. We satisfy our curiosity, and learn a little more about the world along the way. We will also gain perspective and experience, and my students will be well equipped for a future in which natural history research is valued more highly then it is now.