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)

Congratulations to the lab

Last week my laboratory attended the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting, held in Guelph. I was so proud of the whole lab – we had an impressive showing at the meeting, and I was especially impressed with the three undergraduate students who presented their research to Entomologists from across Canada. Wow – I don’t think I had that amount of confidence when I was an undergrad!

I am THRILLED to announce that three arthropod ecology students were recognized for their excellent presentations.

First, Master’s student Étienne Normandin was awarded first prize for his oral presentation in the Biodiversity section.  His talk was titled Biodiversity of wild bees in two urban settings: Montreal and Quebec city. He’s co-supervised by Valérie Fournier at Laval University. Here’s a photo of Etienne doing some field work:

Field work!

Field work!

Second, PhD student Dorothy Maguire was the runner up in the the same Biodiversity section. Her oral presentation was on Insect herbivory in fragmented forest landscapes: linking land use with changes in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Dorothy is co-supervised by Elena Bennett. Here’s a photo of Dory doing what she loves!

Tree climbing!

Tree climbing!

Finally, PhD student Raphaël Royauté was runner up in the student poster competition, for his work titled Does physiological state affect individual variation in boldness in a jumping spider?  Raphaël is co-supervised by Dr. Charles Vincent, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Here’s an older photo of me and Raph, not long after he first came to the lab for a short internship.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

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.

The art of delegation: Perspectives from Academia

The talented graduate student (and all-around great guy) Morgan Jackson recently posted a question on twitter, asking for advice on the art of delegation, from an Academic perspective. This question really struck me as important, for graduate students who are pursuing academic careers and for tenure-track academics.  The reason why is pretty obvious: without learning how to delegate, burnout is inevitable.

To delegate means to entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person, typically one who is less senior than oneself.

The issue of how to delegate is, of course, common and widespread in the business community but academia is a bit peculiar. Let me explain my perspective: In some cases, delegation is straightforward, especially if a staff member is paid to do a particular job and if roles and responsibilities are well defined. Although these kinds of hierarchies exist in Universities and research institutes, these environments often include a high amount of volunteerism and some aspects of Universities (and research more generally) are run on collegiality and community-minded thinking.  Scientific societies would disintegrate if people didn’t share the work-load, and if society president’s weren’t able to delegate work to (often unpaid!) treasurers, web-masters and scholarship committees.  Universities wouldn’t operate effectively if Professors didn’t agree to sit on committees, often delegated by the Chairperson. Research laboratories would be unhappy places if some of the chores weren’t delegated, from making sure coffee supplies are well stocked, to ordering supplies – sometimes a paid technician does this work, but not always….

Academia is also full of “reverse hierarchies” – sometimes a more junior person has to ask a more senior person do take on a responsibility or task – this happens all the time: from seeking help putting together a symposium at a conference, to getting people to agree to sit on an editorial board.  Bottom line: there are COUNTLESS tasks in Academia that depend on delegation and often the tasks, roles and responsibilities don’t fit neatly into one person’s formal (paid) job description, and often the ‘senior to junior’ hierarchy isn’t straightforward .

And perhaps the most important point of all….  one of the biggest obstacles to delegation is the fact that many Academics are perfectionists. Academics, by in large, like to be in control of ALL THE THINGS, from preparing a CV, to setting up committee meetings, to driving a car to a field site. Professors, in general, have got to their position because of their ability to DO ALL THE THINGS and do them well. You can’t publish good papers without knowing how to write; you can’t publish papers without solid research funding, so you have to perfect the art of writing grants; you can’t get a post-doc position of tenure-track position without being able to put together a top-notch presentation and deliver it with the skills of a seasoned orator; you can’t get good teaching scores without investing time and energy into perfecting Powerpoint slides and learning the content….  etc., etc., etc.

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However, as Peter Adler wrote over at Dynamic Ecology recently, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, the job gets more demanding on time, expectations on productivity remain, teaching can be time-intensive, and the Academics are expected to do some administration. From a personal perspective, I am far busier now than I have ever been in the past (but I try not to complain about it).  Good time management skills are not enough to get everything done. What’s needed is an ability to delegate. Again, without effective delegation, burnout is inevitable.

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With that backdrop, how do you delegate?

1) Know the players. Delegation requires knowing your community and knowing the skills and abilities of people within your community, whether it be a graduate student secretary, the treasurer of a scientific society, or a colleague down the hall. Before you can even think of delegation, realize that delegating any kind of work has a real, profound affect on somebody and on how they spend their time. It’s about people, so you must get to know these people! This means networking, whether it be around a coffee maker at work, over twitter, or attending a poster session at a conference.  Pay close attention to everyone you interact with, listen to them, learn their passions, learn what they like to spend their time doing.

2) Play nice. In addition to knowing your community, don’t be a jerk to your community! I mentioned Morgan Jackson at the start of this post; he’s an example of someone who is always willing to lend a hand, say a kind word, and be a team player. He plays nice. I am always happy to help Morgan in return, even though I am (in academic terms) his ‘senior’. This seems SO obvious, but I also know that not everyone plays nice. Some people are selfish, ignore those they deem as ‘inferior’, and require you to grovel to get an answer to an email.  It’s a tough world, and there are big personalities in Academia, and everyone has their own agendas.  This can be difficult to navigate, and politics in Academia can be fierce. However, a strategy that always wins is to play nice. Be collegial, polite, and try not to burn bridges. It’s hard to delegate if there’s nobody left that respects you.

3) Prioritize. Delegation is an art, and one of the trickiest parts is learning what to delegate and what to keep on your own plate. It’s also important to avoid delegating everything. Some things are too close to your own expertise, part of your job description and/or are tasks that you just love too much to give up. However, some tasks can be shared effectively among others, and can move away from your to-do list. Write down ALL that you have to do, and put a star beside those that you cannot see anyone else doing (ahem, if there are stars next to all of the tasks, you will burn out. Start again, and see point #6, below). If your are lead-author on a paper, you sure ought to read over those final page proofs! However, maybe your co-author could do a final check over all references, especially if s/he hasn’t contributed as much to the paper..?

4) Have a vision (& communicate it!). Delegation will not be successful if those you delegate to are not sure what role they are playing in the ‘big picture’.  No matter the size of the task, it is being done for some reason. Having someone give a guest lecture is pretty obvious: the guest lecture helps achieve the learning objectives of the class and gives students a new perspective on the content. Sure, that makes sense. But did you communicate that to both the students and the person giving the lecture? EVERYONE involved needs to understand the ‘why’ behind the jobs and tasks at hand. This means effective delegation requires carefully assessing why tasks are being done, and working to communicate this. If people are part of a vision (even one they may not 100% agree with), it’s a lot easier to get them to take part.

5) Ask and Explain. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking (nicely). This goes much smoother if you have a vision and that you have communicated this vision, as mentioned above. In addition to asking, it’s essential that the tasks you are delegating are clearly defined. A volunteer might agree to sort specimens if you ask them. However, a simple ask may result the job getting done, but perhaps with a lot of mistakes. Asking, and then giving someone a 1 hour tutorial and access to resources on-line will result in fewer errors. Preparing a living document that explains your protocols for sorting and letting them refine and improve the document is even better!  All tasks, regardless of their size, need to be defined. Just because you think it’s easy to do, straightforward, and simple doesn’t mean everyone else will.

6) Let go. (TRUST) I have noticed that many Academics (myself included!) don’t delegate because they say “Ah heck, I already know how to do that, it’ll take too much time to explain or show them how to do it…” or “I’ll do that myself, it’ll be faster“. There are a few problems here. First, if you say this about everything, burnout is inevitable. Second, as an Academic / Researchers/ Post-doc, etc, you are responsible for sharing knowledge and training others, and this takes time. In the time it takes you to ‘just do the task’ five times, you could have trained someone else. Third, this may indicate that you don’t ‘trust’ anyone else to do the job. You must let go of this! Be a perfectionist at the right times, but let some things go. There are errors in everything we do, so sharing them around is fine, for some tasks.  Remember, you have developed a network, you are team player, and you have shared your visions and prioritized, and defined the tasks. It’s time to let go.

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7) Verify. Letting go does not mean letting go forever. There must be follow-up and discussion to ensure the job is done well. Accountability is key. Review the job, first on your own, and then with the person to whom the work was delegated. You must provide constructive feedback, but also listen to ideas, complaints and comments. This will help you redefine the task in the future, and they will feel more responsibility and ownership over the task. This also starts the amazing process of creating someone who can later become a delegator of tasks. This is what mentoring is all about… in your laboratory or classroom, you want people to walk away with confidence in what they do, and with an ability to take their skills sets and pass them along to others.

8) Reward. It’s absolutely essential that you reward those to whom you have entrusted a task or responsibility. If people do not feel their work is valued, and that they have not contributed in an important way, you have failed in effective delegation. If you reward, your vision will grow, your team will respect you, your (positive) network will increase. Rewards can be small or big: A few kind words, a big “THANK YOU”, some homemade cookies, a promotion, or a letter of reference. Here’s an example: I often get graduate students to give guest lectures in my courses. This saves me time, and helps me out when I’m overwhelmed. When students do these lectures, I offer to write them letters or recommendation specifically about their abilities in the classroom. Most take me up on this, and it’s a kind of reward. I also ensure to pass along kind words from the students in the class.

9) Get some training. The art of delegation is seldom on an Academic’s CV. It’s often learned by trial and error, and sometimes never really perfected. Like any skill, training is required. In some cases, informal training is enough. This can be via sitting on committees in scientific societies, learning from effective mentors, or just practicing. However, I think that most Academics are not very good at delegation, and more formal training is required. This could be in the form of workshops, perhaps for all incoming Profs at a University, or as part of a research conference. I would like to see these kinds of ‘management’ skills as part of EVERY graduate student’s program, as perhaps part of the seminar/course work often required during a graduate degree. WE MUST DELEGATE ergo WE MUST HAVE TRAINING.

10) Be a leader. Don’t shy away from leadership. Everything mentioned above is about leadership.  Professors are leaders, perhaps a leader in front of the classroom, as a research leader within your institution, a leading expert in an op-ed piece, or a leader on a committee about academic programs. Effective leaders are effective at delegation; in fact, I might argue it’s impossible to be a leader without being effective at delegation.  Behind every good leader is an even better team. It’s so cliché, but also so very true.

In sum, delegation is about empowerment and leadership. It’s about giving someone else ‘ownership’ over a task that is part of something bigger. Delegation will help you work on things that YOU need to work on, and help you avoid burnout. It’s a required skill for success in Academia.

(BIG thanks to twitter-folks to took part in the conversation about delegation, especially Morgan, Terry, Chris, Staffan, and others)

Lunch in the tree-tops for the birds and the bugs

A few weeks ago, our laboratory published a paper in PeerJ (an open-access journal) titled “Vertical heterogeneity in predation pressure in a temperate forest canopy“. This work resulted from a project by former Master’s student Kathleen Aikens. She graduated a little while ago, and although we published one of her thesis chapters in 2012, it took another year to get this paper out, in part because Kathleen and I both become too busy.  Thankfully, post-doc Dr. Laura Timms agreed to help us finish up the paper, and she worked with me and Kathleen to re-analyze the data, re-write some sections, and whip it into shape.

As is now traditional for my laboratory, here’s a plain-language summary of the paper:

Tree canopies, including those in deciduous forests in southern Quebec, are important for many different animals, including insects and spiders. These small, marvelous creatures crawl up and down trees with regularity, feed upon the leaves of trees, feed upon each other, and are food for animals such as birds and bats. Past research has shown that many species of insects and spiders live in tree canopies, and in general, more insects and spiders are found closer to the ground compared to the very tops of the trees. This makes sense, since deciduous tree canopies often need to be recolonized each spring, and tree canopies are relatively harsh environments – they are windy, hot, and often-dry places as compared to the forest floor.  What we don’t know, however, is whether the insects and spiders avoid the tree canopies because they may be eaten more frequently in the canopy as compared to the understory. The objective of this research was to test this question directly, and find out whether insects and spiders are arranging themselves, vertically, because predators may be preferentially feeding on them along this vertical gradient. This is a very important area of study since biodiversity is highly valued and important in forests, but we cannot fully appreciate the status of this diversity without discovering what controls it.

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Our mobile aerial lift platform. TO THE CANOPY!

We did this work by using two experiments that involved manipulating different factors so we could get at our question in the most direct way possible. In the first experiment, we made ‘cages’ out of chicken wire and enclosed branches of sugar maple trees in the cages. We did this at the ground level all the way to the tops of trees, using a ‘mobile aerial lift platform’. These cages acted to keep out large predators, such as birds, but allowed insects and spiders to live normally on the vegetation. We counted, identified, and tracked the insects and spiders both within these cages, and in adjacent branches that did not have cages (the ‘control’). By comparing the control to the cage, we could find out whether feeding activity by larger vertebrate predators affected insects and spiders, and whether this differed when comparing the ground to the top of the trees. In the second experiment, we used small pins and attached live mealy worms (larvae of beetles) to the trunks of trees, and we did this in the understory all the way up to the canopy. We watched what happened to these mealy worms, and compared what happened during the day and overnight. This is called a ‘bait trial’, and let us figure out what sort of predators are out there in the environment, and in our case, whether they fed more often in the canopy compared to the ground-level. This second experiment was designed for seeing the effects of insect and spider predators along a vertical gradient whereas the first experiment was focused more on vertebrate predators (e.g., birds).

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Munch munch. Carpenter ants feeding on mealworms.

Our results from the first experiment showed that the cages had an effect: more insects and spiders were found when they were protected from predation by birds. Birds are playing a big role in forest canopies: they are feeding on insects and spiders, and in the absence of vertebrate predators, you might speculate more insects and spiders would occupy trees. Our second experiment showed that ants were important predators along the tree trunks, and overall, the most invertebrate predators were found in the lower canopy. Both experiments, together, confirmed that the understory contained the most insects and spiders, and was also the place with the highest amount of predation pressure.  The take-home message is that there is an effect of predation on insects and spiders in deciduous forests, and this effect changes if you are in the understory as compared to the top of the canopy. We also learned and confirmed that insects and spiders remain a key element of a ‘whole tree’ food web that includes vertebrates such as birds, and that predators in trees tend to feed on insects and spiders along a gradient. Where there is more food, there is more predation pressure! Our work was unique and novel because this is the first time a study of predation pressure was done along a vertical gradient in deciduous forests. It will help better guide our understanding of forest biodiversity, and the processes that govern this diversity.

A more detailed discussion of this work is posted on the PeerJ blog.

A guide for writing plain language summaries of research papers

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to have plain language summaries for research papers. That post generated terrific discussions, new collaborations and many ideas, and I am now trying to write plain language summaries of my own research as it gets published. The goal of this current post is to provide some guidance about how to write plain language summaries. This work does not come from just from me, but rather from continued discussions with others, notably Mike Kelly and colleagues over at TechTel. The idea of plain language summaries resonates with so many people, from the business and marketing community, journalists, through to science writers, researchers and academics. I am continuing to work with Mike, and will share more as our ideas and projects develop. For now, however, it’s timely to provide some idea about how to write plain language summaries. As usual, your ideas, opinions, and comments are always welcome!

To revisit, what are plain language summaries?

Plain-language summaries are a way to communicate a scientific research papers to a broad audience, in a jargon-free and clear manner. Jargon is defined as technical terms understood only by specialists in a field of study.  In this post, I am assuming that plain language summaries are aimed at a ‘scientifically literate‘ audience, but an audience that is not specific to a discipline. Most scientists who publish in the peer-reviewed literature are familiar with Abstracts – which are a short synthesis of the research, and which typically highlight the research objectives, method and main findings.  Abstract are typically aimed at the audience that will read a specialized journal, but often contain technical terms, and typically jump into a specialized topic quickly and concisely.  A plain language summary is different because it focuses more broadly, is without jargon, and aims to provide a clear picture about ‘why’ the research was done in additional to ‘how’ the work was done, and the main findings.

Plain language summaries are a valuable contribution as they allow research to be accessed by a broader audience, and because the people who do the research write them, the findings are directly from the source and should capture the proper context for the research. Plain language summaries can provide a means to promote research, whether it is through a publisher, on the blog of a scientific society, or for a University’s Media Relations Office. Department Heads and Deans can take these summaries and both understand and promote the high quality science done by their Professors, research scientists, and students. Journalists could read these summaries and not have to wade through technical terms, and have a higher probability of getting the message right. Colleagues can better understand the work that all scientists do, even when disciplines are quite far apart. Other scientists, journalists, the public, government officials, friends and family, can all better understand science if all research papers were paired with a plain-language summary. Plain language summaries make research available, tangible, and are a way to truly disseminate research findings to all who are interested.

How to write a plain language summary:

The first, and perhaps most essential step, is to explain ‘why’ the research was done. The overarching reason and rational for the research must be explicitly stated in general terms. It’s easy to slip into the habitat of justifying research because “Little is known about x, y or z”.  However, this is not adequate for a plain language summary – ‘something’ is surely known on the topic, it’s just a matter of defining that ‘something’ and explaining how the work is expanding beyond, perhaps to a new research direction, or in a different model system.  Mike Kelly, from his perspective (and background) in marketing, was particularly instrumental in helping recognize that the “why” of research is vitally important, and explaining this should never be taken for granted. Scientists need to start a plain language summaries from a broad, ‘big picture’ and more general framework, and work to place their research paper within this context: they must address and answer the ‘why’.  It takes a lot of time to define the ‘why’ and describe it to a broad audience – take the time – it will make the other steps much easier.

The second step is to state the more specific objectives of the research.   This should flow easily from the first step if there is a clear rationale for the work. The research question is a continual narrowing down to a finer study topic, logically flowing from a big picture overview of the discipline into which the research is nestled. A research objective could be phrased as a question, or goal, and may have several sub-questions.

The third step is to explain ‘what’ you did to answer the research objective. Too much detail will be overwhelming and confusing, too little will not allow the reader to envision how things were done. Try doing a flow-chart that depicts the process of the science, and use this as a guide to writing how the work was done. The goal of a plain language summary is not to allow other scientists to follow your methods, but rather to provide readers with a sense of how you did the work, in broad brushstrokes.

The fourth step is to provide an interpretation of results and make them relevant. Unlike a scientific paper, which typically presents results in a linear fashion and independent of a discussion, plain language summaries should integrate the results with a discussion or interpretation. A plain language summary should show readers how the results to fit together and provide insights into the bigger framework or context of the research. It is not necessary to provide all the results, nor is it necessary to provide specific details about each observation of experiment; rather, the results must tell a story and inform the readers of what you found and why the findings are important relative to your research question. The end of your summary should scope out again, and leave the readers will a strong and positive sense about the contribution of your science to the big-picture that you developed at the start.

The last step is to go through the plain-language summary with a keen eye for meaning and jargon.  Assess each sentence and see that the writing is drawing out the meaning from the research, whether it is a description of the study organism or system, or a rationale for quantitative modeling. Without attention to meaning, at all levels, a plain-language summary will be a re-packaged Abstract, which is to be avoided.  Circle or highlight all terms that could be considered jargon  – have a friend, an uncle or a colleague from a different discipline read over the work to confirm that the jargon is gone.  When jargon is identified, rewrite in non-technical terms – it will take more space, but this is better than having terms that cannot be understood by a general audience.

Then: edit, edit, and edit again.

Some hints….

  • If you are visual person, draw the plain language summary before writing it, this will help draw out the meaning and allow you to understand the flow of the summary and how the different sections fit together.
  • It will likely be helpful to first write your plain language summary with headings.  Use headings such as “Why we did this work”, “How we did this work”, “What were the interesting things that we discovered”, etc. Afterwards, re-work the summary to remove the subheadings.
  • Don’t talk down to your audience. A common mistake is the ‘dumbing down’ of the research and this must be avoided. As mentioned, you are assuming the audience for this summary is scientifically literate, and thus you need to speak to them in this way.
  • Aim for about 500 words – more is too much, fewer can be difficult, especially if your research is highly technical.
  • Have your summaries read by other people outside of your discipline, and then have them explain it back to you. If it’s a good summary, the explanation of your own work should be clear, accurate and precise.  If it’s not, find out the trouble-spots and re-work the summary.
  • Finally, don’t rush the process. Plain language summaries are very difficult to write; they take time, and often draw upon skills that have not been part of a researcher’s typical training. Write the summary, leave it for a day or two, and come back to it. It is very important to get it right, as these summaries have the potential to be read by many more people than would normally read a scientific paper within a journal.

In sum, I hope you find that there is value in plain language summaries, and that this guide provides some ideas about how to write one.

You may have more tips or better ideas – please share! (comments welcome…!)

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.

References:

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

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