Farewell, dear blog.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been appointed as the Dean of Students at McGill! This appointment will start on 1 August, and will certainly involve a lot of changes to work, life and everything in between.

As many of you know, I have long been involved with University administration, and I have written before about why I enjoy administration, and why it is valuable. Being a Dean of Students is especially interesting to me, and here’s why:

The Dean of Students is an appointment that can help facilitate positive change at my University. I have developed a deep passion and interest in student affairs, and I have developed broader interests in administration and service. The motto of my campus is “Mastery for service“, and although cliché, I want to work to further my skills and abilities as an administrator, and I want to use these skills to best serve this University and most importantly, its students. I want to continue to work collaboratively with all members of our community, build respectful and trusting relationships among all, and help our students achieve success in and out of the classroom.

I want to help students have a truly exceptional experience at University.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology, as this blog enters a long diapause.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology – it’s been great!

I will certainly continue to keep my research program moving along: my institution supports this, and administrative leaders at McGill are encouraged to continue to be well-rounded academics, as much as is possible. However, there are always trade-offs, and becoming the Dean of Students will indeed affect my ability to blog with any regularity. I am, therefore, announcing that the blog will enter a very long diapause. I’ll certainly leave my old posts up, and I hope people continue to enjoy and share them, but I just won’t have the time to keep blogging on a regular basis.

Arthropod Ecology has had a great ride! The blog started back in 2011, and has been going strong for five years: I’ve written almost 300 posts over the years; I had a go at a few regular features (the most recent being “Spiderday“), and some posts continue to generate hundreds of hits per day (especially “Spiders do not bite“, “Tips for succeeding at University“, and “How to ask for a letter of recommendation“); I’ve been thrilled at the reception my blog has received: 500,000 visitors have come to Arthropod Ecology which is so far beyond any of my expectations! A lot more people visit the blog that would ever read my research papers. I hope writing about spiders, science, teaching, and higher education as proved useful to some. Personally, it has all contributed to my own growth as a scientist and a professor, and I have no regrets.

To my faithful readers: THANK YOU for being such great friends, for being critical, and being supportive. I’m sorry to be bowing out, and I do hope others continue to blog. Working to be good science communicators as well as good scientists, is so very important.

Onward to new adventures!

What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Using Twitter in science: advice for graduate students

I recently gave a hands-on workshop to graduate students in our department about using Twitter in science. As part of that workshop, I provided some bullet points about this social media tool, and I thought it might be useful to share these perspectives more broadly!

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Twitter can be useful for:

  • Filtering, accessing science stories relevant to your field of study (e.g., EurekAlert!, news media, science writers)
  • Assisting with your career (job ads, getting to know potential colleagues/supervisors)
  • Creating a research network
  • Doing research
  • Forging collaborations
  • Attending conferences virtually
  • Engaging with a broader audience (e.g. Directly or through journalists, media offices, science writers)
  • Social justice, political change, activism
  • Being inspired by great thinkers, innovators, writers, scientists etc
  • Seeng the human side of science
  • Becoming a better writer and science communicator
  • Track the reach of your work (analytics)

When using Twitter as a scientist, here are some things to think about:

  • What you might want to do on Twitter? (Learn? Engage? Have fun? Grow a following? Do research? Promote your work?). Craft your profile and approach based on these objectives (Note: this can change!)
  • If your objectives are about science, find a balance between professional/personal (actually: ALWAYS think about this… And remember that “personal” is seldom completely private with social media tools)
  • Don’t overwhelm your followers with self-promotion
  • When tweeting try to “Be professional, and Be positive” (note: I learned this advice from Adam Taylor who runs #SciStuChat)
  • You don’t have to Tweet to be on Twitter: Watch and learn before jumping in (many months, perhaps!)
  • Curate who you follow carefully (Don’t be afraid to unfollow people)
  • Don’t obsess about growing your own following: this will happen over time
  • Don’t feel you have to read your entire feed: important and interesting content appears multiple times
  • If you per objective is to share content, aim for information-rich tweets (links/photos etc)
  • Use “draft” features – sometimes it’s good to write Tweets without sending them right away.
  • Learn how to use Hashtags effectively (they are, essentially the “magnets” of the Internet)
  • Own up to mistakes / apologize
  • Give credit where it’s due, especially when thinking about sharing photos or art: ask permission before sharing!
  • Curate content! (e.g. “Like” button, or better yet, another program – Pocket, Evernote) – it’s easy to forget about neat things you have seen on Twitter, so it’s important to find ways to save the things you may wish to find later on.

Caveats:

  • Twitter can become a time-waster and great procrastination tool: learn to be careful with your use
  • Often, your community ends up being limited to like-minded people
  • It’s easy to get embroiled in debates and controversy: be careful
  • Trolls can ruin everything; people can be jerks.
  • Twitter is certainly not for everyone

There are heaps of other resources out there, and I do recommend checking out this page on Science Borealis.

Have things to add? Please comment, below!

A Tangle of Opiliones

The results are in!! Last week I ran a poll to get help in picking the best name for a congregation of Opiliones (i.e., Daddy long-legs, Harvestmenpersons). HUNDREDS of you voted, but the clear winner, with just about 55% of the votes is…

“A Tangle of Opiliones”

Opiliones

A congregation of Opiliones (photo by D. Ringer, reproduced here under CC License 3.0)

This name was proposed by “Antnommer” on Twitter, and it is quite fitting. When thousands of Opiliones hang out together, it does indeed look like a full-on tangle of Arachnids.

Thanks, everyone, for participating in the poll, and helping to find a perfect collective noun for these astounding Arachinds.

Here are the poll results, for those interested:

PollResultsAnd some of the “other” suggestions:

PollResults_Other

Here’s another video to illustrate a rather fine tangle of Opiliones

 

Spiderday (#25) – February

It’s that time again! Spiderday – your monthly linkfest of all the best Arachnid stories from the past month.  Let’s get started…

A wolf spider. This photo by Sean McCann related to some daydreaming I've been doing, about collecting spiders.

A wolf spider (genus Rabidosa). This photo by Sean McCann related to some daydreaming I’ve been doing, about collecting spiders.

Capture

Capture

Happy New Year (and the year ahead)

Welcome to 2016! Over the holidays I have been thinking about the past year, planning new projects for 2016, including taking stock of this blog and where it’s going.

Last year was terrific year for this blog – I managed to publish 69 posts and over 240,000 visitors came to Arthropod ecology (thanks in a large part to xkcd linking to my ‘you are always within three feet of a spider‘ post). Spiderday was successful, and I remain so thankful to everyone who reads, shares and comments on my posts.

Capture

The time investment for blogging is not insignificant, and I do sometimes question whether it’s worth it. I enjoy writing, and posting, but I also sometimes feel conflicted, as time blogging takes away from time doing other things. It’s also notable that engagement has been less this year (if measured by comments on posts), and all my ‘top posts’ are things I wrote years ago. Although I am posting at least once per week, I don’t invest the same amount of time with each post that I used to do. This may be because I have less time than I used to, perhaps I have less to say, or I’ve run out of energy for it (FWIW, I think it’s mostly because of time constraints). I also don’t much like feeling the (self-imposed) pressure to publish regularly. Heck – it’s supposed to be FUN!

I’ve therefore decided to shift things a little for this coming year on Arthropod Ecology. Here’s my plan:

  • Spiderday will continue, but instead of trying to post 2-3 times per month, I will instead save up the Arachnology links for a whole month, and publish Spiderday once a month – perhaps on the last Saturday of each month.
  • I will continue to use the blog to post about publications from the lab, and about laboratory news. It’s a great way to promote the work from the lab, and share exciting news.
  • I will try to publish one longer-format science post about once a month – I have a whole lot of ideas written down about things I would like to write about, and if I invest more in quality instead of quantity, I might get to some of these ideas. I’d like to get back to more in-depth treatments of topics, whether it is about arachnid research, or thoughts about teaching and higher education.
  • I’m also toying around with the idea of trying to use the blog for occasional shorter-format notes, whether it’s curious observations about nature, or as a type of ‘research notebook’ to toss out ideas and see if they float. I think a blog can be a form of journaling, and although I’ve not used in this this way before, I may give it a try.

I hope you like what’s in store for Arthropod Ecology for 2016. Thanks again to everyone who follows along, and I wish you a wonderful year ahead.

Questions and answers about spiders

Spiders, spiders, everywhere. I get asked a LOT of questions about spiders – from students, friends, neighbors, over twitter, and from journalists. I recently spent some time talking to a journalist in my hometown about spiders in Quebec*, and thought to share the details here! Here’s a copy of some of the Q&A with the journalist:

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

Q1) Why your obvious fascination with spiders?

Spiders are fascinating because they have remarkable biology and life history, and are certainly as beautiful as all other animals. They are the top predators in their own world, feeding on insects that may cause economic damage to our crops, or catching mosquitoes that seek us out for a blood meal. They build stunning webs, have remarkable diversity of body types and the live almost everywhere on the planet (all terrestrial parts, except the Antarctic). As babies the ‘balloon’ up into the air, and are among the best dispersers in the world – better than many flying insects. They are among the most common animals in ecosystems – we have recorded, for example, that wolf spiders occur in densities of over 1 spider per square m in parts of the Arctic tundra. What’s not to love?

Q2) How long have you been interested in them and why do you think they have a bad rap with so many people ?

I became interested in spiders when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph. A botany Professor there was working on the old cedar trees growing off the cliff faces of the Niagara escarpment, and during one summer he hired me to help with that work. While hanging off cliff faces, I couldn’t help but notice SO MANY SPIDERS and this piqued my curiosity, Professor Larson then allowed me to do a research project in the lab, and I did that project on spiders. Like to many things … a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I learned more, I became more and more fascinated by Arachnids, and continued on to do another undergraduate research project on spiders, and it just continued and continued until this day. I have been working with spiders now for over 20 years of my life.

Arachnophobia is real and serious for many people, but in many cases, people are not necessary arachnophobic, but rather have a general (unfounded) loathing for spiders and I believe this is largely because they have not explored their incredible biology and natural history. With education, I find people can shift from fear to curiosity and amazement. There have been studies done that illustrate that the ways that spiders move, and their extra legs, may contribute to a general fear of spiders – in other words, they can surprise us and are so “Leggy” that it causes a startle reaction and this perhaps leads to fear. This is very common in our society, and this feeds a cycle of fear, as our children learn fears from us. There may be some genetic basis to being afraid of spiders, also, and this probably relates to the fact that some spiders are indeed venomous to humans. In this part of the world, however, there are very few spiders of medical importance, and spider bites are exceedingly rare. Although everyone has a story about a spider bite, most of these are not verified, and other more likely causes should be investigated. Misdiagnosis is common in the medical field, also.

Q3) Why are they beneficial in the garden? And, even in moderation I assume, in the home ?

Spiders are beneficial because they eat many insects that themselves can be harmful to our gardens. In our homes they also feed on other insects that live in our homes. Without spiders, we would certainly have more other critters in our house and garden.

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

Q4) How many types of spiders do you think we have in this region and what would you estimate their total population to be?

There are over 40,000 different species of spiders in the world, over 3,000 species known in Canada, and over 600 species known from Quebec. That is a LOT of different kinds of spiders! There are certainly more species of spiders in the world than there are mammals or birds. I estimate an average yard in any small town in southern parts of Canada harbour easily 20-30 different species, and our local forests certainly can have over 100 different species.

It’s difficult to estimate population (i.e., how many of each kind of spider), but it’s fair to say that the old saying that you are always within three feet of spider is likely quite accurate, at least when you are in natural environments. The sheer biomass and density of spiders in some parts of the world is truly astounding.

Q5) What are some of the most common kinds of spiders?  What do they do during the winter?

Common spiders in our homes include things like the “Zebra jumper” Salticus scenicus it’s the little black and white jumping spider that is common in our window sills or on the walls of our houses, especially on warm summer days. Many of us have the Cellar spiders Pholcus phalangioides in our houses (they have long, gangly legs, but are not to be confused with “Daddy long legs – aka Harvestmenpersons – they are cousins to spiders, but not actually spiders!). In our gardens in the late summer, we see many individuals of the black-and yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia – it’s very large, with black and yellow striping on its abdomen, stringing up its huge webs in our gardens. Another very common orb-weaving spider, that also matures in the late summer, is Neoscona crucifera. We often see funnel-web or grass spiders (Agelenopsis) on dewy mornings: they can build their sheet-webs (with a funnel retreat at one end) on shrubs or on our lawns, in very high densities – obvious with a heavy layer of dew. We also find Canada’s largest spider in southern Quebec – an impressive animal!

The cute Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

The cute and common Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

Spiders do various things in the winter – in some cases the egg cases overwinter, and in other cases the spiders overwinter. Most spiders are “freeze avoidant”, meaning that they cannot freeze without dying, so they often adapt by ‘supercooling’ which essentially means they produce antifreeze in their bodies so they will survive below freezing temperatures. Spiders generally find places to hide in the winter, whether it’s in leaf-litter, under rocks, or finding a way into our warm basements.

Q6) Do you have a personal favourite spider?  If so, why, and what is it called?

I really like the ant-mimicking jumping spiders such as Peckhamia pictata  – it occurs in Quebec, and is a marvellous mimic of ants – most people don’t notice it because it fools us by its shape and behaviour – and so very easy to mistake as an ant instead of a spider. There are, in the world, about 300 different species of jumping spiders that mimic ants – a behaviour that is more common in the tropics, but also happens with some species here in the north.

Q7) How long have spiders been around on Earth and how long do spiders, on average, live?

Spiders have been around for perhaps 400 million years, which is a very, very long time. They have been on this planet far longer than us!

In this part of the world, spiders typically live one year, although some larger species may take more than one year to reach adulthood. In captivity spiders can live a very long time – I have a Tarantula named Harriet, in my lab at McGill, and she is approaching 20 years old.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

*indeed, this Q &A was Quebec-focused, so may not be generalizable to all parts of the world!