Where are all the Arachnologists? (and why you should care)

Canada is a big country, with an amazing diversity of habitats, from the temperate rainforests of Vancouver Island, to the polar deserts on Ellesmere Island.  We are a country that harbours thousands of Arachnid species (yes, our eight-legged friends!).  Some examples: the Yukon Territory hosts over 300 spider species and over 150 species of Oribatid mites; Quebec is home to well over 600 spider species.  The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute has documented over 200 species of Sarcoptiformes mites from a relatively few number of sites in Alberta, and their work is far from complete.  The Canadian National Collection of Insects and Arachnids in Ottawa has one of the best spider and mite collections, world-wide.

A beautiful jumping spider. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A beautiful jumping spider. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

The general public is fascinating by Arachnids: my post titled ‘Spiders do Not Bite continues to get hundreds of hits every week.  We link comic-books and superheroes to Arachnids (even if the anatomy of spiderman is all wrong…).  Spider silk is used to make dresses, violin strings, and has potential in pest control.  There are invasive spider species that go unnoticed, yet may affect native species – as Bednarski, et al (2010) have documented in Maine.  Spiders continually show up in grocery stores and cause alarm and fear (although mostly not warranted..).  People are often picking ticks off their pets, or hearing about lyme disease.

Everyone has a story to share about Arachnids.

Recently, the Class Arachnida was a lunchtime topic of discussion in the lab. This discussion was in part prompted by an email I received from Leslie Brunetta. She asked the question about how we can promote Arachnology in University education.  One way to do this would be for Arachnologists to agree to deliver guest lectures in organismal biology classes, and this got us into a discussion about how many people get paid to work on Arachnology in Canada.

I tried to estimate the number of people in Canada who spend a significant portion of their time getting paid to do things with Arachnids – and I consulted a lot of colleagues to get this done.  This would include academics with a research focus on Arachnids (from behavioural ecology to biodiversity science), and government scientists working on Arachnids (from systematics through to the use of mites as biological control agents).  This does not include graduate students, nor does it include people working on short-term contracts.  I estimate that fewer than 20 people are paid to work on Arachnids in this country. This is truly astounding and astonishing.  Arachnids include two Orders that are among the most diverse on the planet: combining the Acari (mites & ticks) and Araneae (spiders) gives you estimates of well over 85,000 described species, globally.  There are only a handful of Insect Orders that are higher.

Let’s revisit why EVERYONE should care about Arachnids and why Canada ought to have more Arachnologists: 

Spiders are key predators in agroecosystems (the classic paper by Riechert & Lockley 1984 is quite relevant!). Spiders eat mosquitoes, including those that can be vectors for malaria (Nelson & Jackson 2006) .  Spiders are key prey for highly valued vertebrates (Gunnarsson 2007).  Spiders can be medically important – their venom has remarkable potential for drug development (Rates et al. 2011).

Mites are everywhere – they play critical roles in decomposition of organic matter (Kampichler & Bruckner 2009). Plant-feeding mites are economically important for dozens of crops.  Follicle mites are in our heads (Elston 2010).

Ticks can transmit diseases that are very important for human health and well being (Sperling & Sperling 2012). Ticks can hurt our beloved pets (Blagburn & Dryden 2009).  Ticks can be harmful for wildlife populations (Addison et al. 1994).

Need more convincing?

Arachnids are stunningly beautiful; they are among the ‘small and obscure’ creatures most worthy of study. In addition to mites, ticks and spiders, we can’t forget about Opiliones, Pseudoscorpiones, Scorpiones and other Orders… Arachnids should adored as much as Pandas, or the Mona Lisa.

8 Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.).  Photo by D. Walter, reproduced here, with permission.  You should visit his blog.

8 Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.). Photo by D. Walter, reproduced here, with permission. You should visit his blog.

CANADA: THIS IS A CRISIS!  We must find a way to ensure Arachnologists get paid to do Arachnology in Canada.  The most obvious place to point is the CNC.  It is unacceptable that a spider taxonomists has yet to be hired to maintain that spider collection.  We should be embarrassed.  Taxonomists are needed in Canada, especially for dominant arthropod groups.  The Canadian Council of Academics makes this point quite clearly in their report on Canadian Taxonomy:

     Job openings in taxonomy have virtually ceased and research funding is stagnant.  Canada’s international contribution to new species descriptions has fallen from 6th in the 1980s to 14th in the 2000s. 

Oh Canada.  Where are your Arachnologists?

Oh Canada. Where are your Arachnologists?

I realize that many other taxonomic groups remain understudied – However, I am discussing an entire Class of animals!  Could you imagine if I were discussing Mammalia, or Reptilia, or Insecta?  There would be an uproar.

Let us work to fix this.  Let’s train excellent Arachnology graduate students, let’s lobby Departmental Chair, Deans, Bureaucrats in Government, members of Parliament, and whoever else will listen.  MUST Listen.

Our eight-legged friends need our help.


Addison, E., McLaughlin, R., & Broadfoot, J. (1994). Growth of moose calves infested and uninfested with winter ticks Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72 (8), 1469-1476 DOI: 10.1139/z94-194

Blagburn BL, & Dryden MW (2009). Biology, treatment, and control of flea and tick infestations. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice, 39 (6) PMID: 19932369

Danks VH and JA Downes. 1997. Insects of the Yukon. Biological Survey of Canada.

Gunnarsson, B. (2007). Bird Predation On Spiders: Ecological Mechanisms And Evolutionary Consequences Journal of Arachnology, 35 (3), 509-529 DOI: 10.1636/RT07-64.1

Elston, D. (2010). Demodex mites: Facts and controversies Clinics in Dermatology, 28 (5), 502-504 DOI: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.03.006

Kampichler, C., & Bruckner, A. (2009). The role of microarthropods in terrestrial decomposition: a meta-analysis of 40 years of litterbag studies Biological Reviews, 84 (3), 375-389 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2009.00078.x

Nelson, X., & Jackson, R. (2006). A Predator from East Africa that Chooses Malaria Vectors as Preferred Prey PLoS ONE, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000132

Rates B, Verano-Braga T, Santos DM, Nunes KP, Pimenta AM, & De Lima ME (2011). From the stretcher to the pharmacy’s shelf: drug leads from medically important brazilian venomous arachnid species. Inflammation & allergy drug targets, 10 (5), 411-9 PMID: 21824079

Paquin, P.  &  N. Dupérré 2006. The spiders of Québec: update, additions and correctionsZootaxa 1133: 1-37.

Riechert, S., & Lockley, T. (1984). Spiders as Biological Control Agents Annual Review of Entomology, 29 (1), 299-320 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.29.010184.001503

Sperling, J., & Sperling, F. (2012). Lyme borreliosis in Canada: biological diversity and diagnostic complexity from an entomological perspective The Canadian Entomologist, 141 (06), 521-549 DOI: 10.4039/n08-CPA04



15 thoughts on “Where are all the Arachnologists? (and why you should care)

  1. Very interesting!! And surprising to see the numbers. As Ottawa has such a well-stocked arachnid collection relative to other places with so few people working on the group across Canada – how does the rest of the world fare? Is this a global trend?

  2. Hi Vince – thanks for the comment. Yes, I fear it is a global trend – in a conversation on twitter a couple of weeks ago some colleagues in the UK suggested things were as dire there as they are here regarding (paid) Arachnologists.

  3. Chris, I agree with your comment above.

    With the long standing British Arachnological Society (see http://www.britishspiders.org.uk) and the UK’s long history in natural history recording, you’d have thought that we would have more than a handful of paid arachnologists. Within academia, I believe there are only a couple whose research is primarily focussed on arachnids. Even the Natural History Museum’s arachnid curator also has to cover myriapods. I know of perhaps one or two paid mite specialists. I’m a professional ecologist with a specialism in spiders and harvestmen (Opiliones) and am fortunate in getting some paid work directly related to spider ecology but this represents a small percentage of my time. I’m guessing perhaps there may be between 5-10 individuals in the private and NGO sector who may apply their taxonomic capability as part of their job.

    We are a rare breed!

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  5. “…let’s lobby Departmental Chair, Deans, Bureaucrats in Government, members of Parliament, and whoever else will listen”

    Change “will listen” to “must listen”. Subtle difference, but appropriately direct. You’re not apologizing for an imminent string of yawning whines.

    Kidding aside, where, how, and what is lobbying? I think of “lobbyers” as oil baron goons who swarm politicians as they pass through the turnstiles, en route to the Hill.

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  8. Hi John – Thanks for the comment – I do think the amateur Arachnologists FAR outnumber the ‘paid’ arachnologists, and a healthy community of paid and unpaid arachnologists is very, very important. In my experience, many of the amateur arachnologists in this country are incredibly skilled at the science of spiders, from taxonomy and natural history through to behaviour. I’ve learned as much from amateurs as i have from professionals.
    By the way, i’m very excited about your upcoming book! Amazing!

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  11. I work with spiders, with taxonomy and zoogeography. My dream is to leave my country (Brazil) and start a new life in the USA or Canada as a Ph.D student. It’s a shame this lack of professionals. Hopefully, one day, my dream come true and I may be helpful about learning and teaching about those animals I love. I just need an advisor hehehe

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