Labels tell stories: natural history and ecology from dead spiders in vials

Earlier this week I was back in Ottawa at Canada’s National Spider collection with a couple of enthusiastic students from the lab. We were doing more databasing, which involves reading old labels and entering the information into a database.

Sound boring?  Nothing is further from the truth. It’s an amazing way to spend time, here’s an example:

Spiders as prey

Yes, that label for a jumping spider species provides more than a name, locality and date. It provides a story. It confirms that spiders are hosts for parasitoid wasps, and it documents an ecological interaction; one that is stamped in time and place.

Every single specimen in a museum or research collection tells a story. There are untold riches on little pieces of paper linked to biological specimens. In addition to the usual name, place, and time, label data gives us varied and fascinating ecological stories. Here’s another one:

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Yes, more evidence of one spider species preying upon another species. Intraguild predation, recorded and placed in a vial.

I love this next one – in part because you now know that bluebirds eat jumping spiders and that Arachnologists can identify the species based only on the male palp (that is all that was in the vial, it’s the little spider ‘bit’ at the bottom left). Um, I suppose the bird got the rest of the specimen!:

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Label data can tell incredible stories!  Here’s a nice set of labels that show how Phidippus jumping spiders really, really get around:

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Planes, automobiles, and boats.  (um, boats in Saskatchewan! A Province of relatively limited water, by Canadian standards).

Label data also provide insights into the characters of scientists. Below is an example of three different individuals all identifying the specimen as the same species. The three scientists, by the way, are preeminent Arachnologists in North America – I would trust any one of their identifications, but clearly they were not entirely sure, and all three had a look to confirm the identification. Three votes from Dondale, Maddison & Edwards, in three different decades! Yes, it’s Phidippus audax:

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Label data provide an important historical context.  I was thrilled to see this label from 1917 collected by none other than Norman Criddle (Criddle is well known to Entomologists in Canada):

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Label data provide opportunity to discuss, imagine and be inspired by biodiversity. I identified a species of jumping spider from a place called Sable Island. The species is one of the most attractive spiders in North America, Habronattus decorus

Sable Island is here:

Sable Island

So… the questions start. How did it get there? Presumably ballooning? Are these lovely critters still on Sable Island? What is the fauna of Sable Island? Is is a stable fauna? An old vial, stuck in a cabinet in Ottawa, opens to door to questions of dispersal, biogeography and biodiversity.

I think the message is clear: databasing provides a rich opportunity to paint a picture of a species, over time and over space.  

But here’s the problem: there are about 2700 vials of jumping spiders to database. Each one takes about 3 minutes to database, meaning it would take about 135 hours of work to database only 1 family of spiders, in one collection! And working in the collection is not free – paying students, travel time, lodging, etc. all take time and resources.

So far our laboratory got through about 400 specimens (15% of the Salticidae). We have barely made a dent.

This is an undeniable problem: We must capture these data and make them available for scientists to use.

How can we understand biodiversity change when most of our historical data are not yet digitized?

How can we begin to understand biodiversity patterns without knowing what is where, and when? 

When I wrote my previous post about the Canadian collection, I was pointed to Notes from Nature – an on-line resource where databasing is crowdsourced. This is a pretty neat idea – label data (and specimens) are photographed, uploaded to the site, and anyone in the world can transcribe the data.  It allows anyone with an interest in biodiversity to reach into a collection and learn the stories from the specimens.

I am hoping to try this out with spiders from Canada’s national collection. While in Ottawa, I tried taking photos of specimens, and tracked how much time it takes. It turns out it takes about 2 minutes to photograph the specimens and label. You must take out the spider, the label(s), arrange everything carefully and take photo(s). It then takes about 1 minute to edit the photo, and about 1.5 minutes for someone to enter data into a computer from a photograph instead of from the specimen itself. So, total time for databasing is 1-2 minutes longer than sitting in the collection and doing the databasing. The benefit, of course, is that there is good potential to actually get a collection databased from afar. Here’s an example of a photographed label and specimen, after editing:

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Question: would YOU help database if you could go on-line and see these kinds of images? Does it grab your attention? Even if 20-30 people agreed to database 75 or so specimens, each, the Salticidae would be done! (and, of course, someone would have to take images, and edit them beforehand).

I am keen to have your feedback…. I want to know if it’s an idea worth pursuing.

Do you want to learn stories from specimens? 


11 thoughts on “Labels tell stories: natural history and ecology from dead spiders in vials

  1. We’re fairly lucky in the world of bird research, since the smaller vertebrate collections (usually birds and mammals) are often the first to get digitised. And there are projects like Ornis ( that bring together museum databases across multiple institutions. I’d certainly spend a few hours on the weekend transcribing data.

  2. I digitized the Acadia herbarium specimens two summers ago & can relate to the labels telling stories. As a plant ecologist, I’d love to peek into the collections of other taxa & I think projects like Notes from Nature make for interesting citizen science collaborations.

  3. Thanks for the comments! Glad there are lots of other keen biologists out there who appreciate, treasure and enjoy museum/collection data. Ever specimen is like a little present; a little puzzle. A test of geography & handwriting.

  4. What a fun article! There may be a way for you to photograph much faster. Consider my lesson learned. We would have groups of children visit the UT insect collection to work on spiders. I took one group of kids, and someone else took another. The goal was to transfer specimens from leaky plastic vials to glass vials and to divide specimens among multiple vials if they were noticeably different, duplicating labels as necessary. (These were all from pitfall traps, so the labels were pretty much all the same except for date and trap number.) By the time we finished one tray, the other group had finished three trays. The difference: they had set themselves up in an assembly line, so that no one ever had to transition between tasks, arranging it so that faster tasks preceded slower tasks. The cumulative time for the effort was the minimum time required for the collection as a whole rather than per vial.

    • Hi Joe – thanks for the comment. I do want to trial a ‘big’ group up in the collection and do an ‘assembly line’ approach – I think you are right & it is a good idea – there will be some ways to get the photo process down to much shorter duration. Hmm… maybe even work this into a class project…

  5. Great post. I data based some of the specimens at the UofA Strickland Museum and at the Northern Forestry Centre. It was a lot of fun (especially for a history buff like me) to go through that old information.

    The Criddle label is neat, I wonder if that is how he spelled the name of his homestead? In most literature it’s listed as ‘Aweme’.

    oh, and this loyal Roughrider fan would be remiss if he didn’t point out: Saskatchewan is ~10% water by surface area; the province’s name means ‘Swiftly flowing river’ in Cree; Saskatoon even has it’s own shipwreck: and the province was the site of a naval battle: So finding a spider on a boat isn’t THAT surprising to this flat-lander.

    • Thanks Chris -yes, it’s fun for history, geography, biology and more. That why I think ‘notes from nature’ has real potential. (but high cost re: getting photos done and uploading them, organizing etc)

      -interesting point about the Criddle label. Maybe a typo? Curious.

      HA – I knew a Roughrider fan would comment on my ‘lack of boats’ comment in SK. Hee hee. And I did not know about that shipwreck. Very cool.

      Thanks again for the comments.

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