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Ancient spiders from an ancient forest

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Ever wish you could travel back through time and see a west coast Vancouver Island rainforest before industrial logging? To see huge old trees, intact soils and life in a climax ecosystem? You do not have to invent a time machine, you only need to travel about an hour out of Port Renfrew to the spectacular Walbran Valley.

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As part of an effort to document the biodiversity of the valley, I traveled with fellow arachnologists Claudia Copley, Darren Copley, Zoe Lindo, and Catherine Scott, along with birders, mycologists, lichenologists and assorted volunteers to spend a day among the giant trees. We were there at the invitation of the Friends of Carmanah-Walbran to lend our expertise to the effort of catloguing the biodiversity of this beautiful, yet still at-risk west coast habitat.

We arrived at the somewhat storied “Bridge to Nowhere”, where in 1991 environmental protesters confronted the logging companies, the RCMP and the government of British Columbia, holding the line against industrial exploitation of a rare ecosystem. What the activists were asking for seems modest: Can’t we have just this one watershed, among all the others on Vancouver Island, be preserved and protected from the clearcutting and degradation that is the fate of every other valley on the Island?

20170528-IMG_00212. Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones walks across the Bridge to Nowhere

While the Friends of Carmanah-Walbran took the other participants deep into the woods on hikes, we arachnologists ventured only short distances into the woods, as our slow and careful sifting through the soil and beating of the bushes is certainly not a thrill ride for everyone. For us, however, it was thrilling, as within 30 minutes of arrival on site, we had found a beautiful and seemingly dense population of Hexura picea, a relative of tarantulas.

20170528-IMG_00803. Hexura picea, a tarantula relative, brought out of its underground silk tunnel complex for a photo shoot.

These little, pretty, but nondescript spiders live in small silk tunnel complexes among the soil and rocks of the forest floor. Each tunnel has a main entrance lined with silk, and several other openings which may facilitate rapid escape or offer alternate exits at which to snare prey. Being members of the suborder Mygalomorphae, they are indeed tarantula relatives, a group of spiders that closely resemble ancient spiders. Many mygalomorphs retain traces of segmentation on their abdomens, unlike the more modern araneomorph spiders. In the Mecicobothriidae (to which Hexura belongs) the terminal spinneret segments bear “pseudosegmentation”

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The section of forest we found this spider in was a real “tangled bank”, in fact the scree slope associated with Walbran creek and a small tributary, which has since been covered with a layer of soil and a stand of hardy trees.

20170528-IMG_00574. Erosion is a gentler process in a forested valley, with trees holding on to what would be a talus slope higher in the mountains. The soils beneath these trees support an extensive food web.

Finding these spiders in the Walbran was not unexpected, as they had previously been found in the Carmanah Valley and at Avatar Grove, but their presence on Vancouver Island is somewhat puzzling, as they represent the only known Canadian population, and are seemingly not present on the BC mainland.

Given the dense population in the Walbran, the valley would be an wonderful place to study their behaviour, which so far is undocumented. We would presume that much of the activity of these spiders takes place at night, although Catherine was able to lure one out of its burrow by tickling the silken doormat with a twig.

20170528-IMG_01115. Hexura picea emerges from its silken tunnel and onto its “doormat” to “kill” a vibrating cedar twig.

The litter sampling we conducted will surely yield many more species, although we have to wait until the Berlese funnels have extracted all of the arthropods. The work of sampling and cataloguing biodiversity takes time, and is not totally congruent with the rapid “bioblitz” ethos.

If you are ever in BC, and want a trip back in time (never mind our politics), please do not hesitate to come out to the Walbran Valley. You may just discover something amazing.

20170528-IMG_02486. Darren and Claudia picking up pan traps beside the Malaise flight-intercept trap.

 

 

 

 

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Appreciating insects and other arthropods: a lifetime of riches

 

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It is about time I got busy and stared blogging again on this site. Since I am out of practice, I will do what I know best: a photo essay about why I love insects and other arthropods, and how studying them has improved my life!

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Ever since I was a young kid, I have loved getting out and seeing the animals nearby. When I was very young, my mom would send me in the backyard with a spoon and a yogurt container, so I could dig up, catch and watch the bugs I found. 

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In school, virtually all of my research reports and essays would be about insects, spiders, snakes and other animals. My love of insects became my pathway to learning.

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In university, I continued to indulge my love of insects and other animals, by taking any and all zoological courses offered. 

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Even when not studying, almost all the free time I get is spent outdoors, still looking for and watching insects, spiders and other animals. I really enjoy doing photography of what I find. 

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Taking photos of insects is a great way to explore their beauty, and to try to communicate that to others. In the pursuit of a good photograph, I learn a lot about the habits of local insects. 

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Now, I make a living studying animal behaviour. At the moment I am working with Catherine Scott studying spider behaviour at a local beach in Victoria BC. 

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We are studying black widows, one of the most beautiful and intriguing spiders. Of course I bring my camera along, to document the cool things we are learning about their behaviour!

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Studying insects and spiders is not only my job, it is what I most love to do. There is just so much to learn and explore. I think that getting out and experiencing the natural world this way is one of the most rewarding things someone of any age can do!

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Organizations like the Entomological Society of Canada, as well as the Entomological Society of Ontario, and the Toronto Entomologist’s Association form a community of people I can talk to and share my discoveries with. I highly recommend getting together with other insect lovers! Trading ideas and anecdotes and learning more together are some ways we can improve knowledge of insects and other arthropods.  

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OK! I have said my piece. I would welcome any other ESC members, or other entomologists out there to do likewise! What have you been doing this summer? What are some of the cool things you have seen? Share them with us here at the ESC blog!

 

 

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A Canadian Entomologist in Australia

Holly and Jake 2014

A termite mound on the road to Tom Price, Western Australian. A 2014 field trip through the Pilbara with two of the author’s PhD students, Jake Coates and Holly Caravan (not the first trip to Australia for any of them)

 A Canadian Entomologist in Australia (it has been done before, I am sure, but here are my two cents. Or, should I round that down to zero or up to 5 cents?) Okay, new title: My five cents

Guest post by Tom Chapman

I have introduced many Canadian students to Australian based fieldwork (e.g. Jake Coates). They’ve heard the stories, so they tended to start with some fear of Australia’s deadly denizens. Here is my advice to them woven into some of my personal stories of working in Australia. First, some of the most amazing biologists (professional and otherwise) in the world are Australian. But, do not assume that every Australian you meet is an outback survival expert with excellent knowledge of the local flora and fauna. And get ready; you are going to be teased and fed a lot of nonsense (exhibit A: dropbears).

My first expedition to Australia, the land of perilous animals, was in 1997. I was a graduate student, I knew next to nothing about the southern hemisphere let alone anything about Australia, and I was traveling on my own. I was to begin collecting gall-inducing thrips on Acacia. My supervisor, arguably the world’s expert on these insects (sorry Laurence Mound, father of all things thrippy), was to follow me a few weeks later. Why was I going first? I never really knew, maybe my supervisor didn’t want to be seated long-term by my side on cramped airplanes, but I tried not to take it personally. After about 31 hours of traveling, I arrived in Adelaide; well placed at the edge of Australia’s arid zone to begin my search for Acacia thrips.

An Acacia thrips gall covered in aphids and tended by ants (2007, near Fowler’s Gap, NSW)

An Acacia thrips gall covered in aphids and tended by ants (2007, near Fowler’s Gap, NSW)

A very generous and outgoing student, among the research group at Flinders University that was to host me, volunteered to pick me up at the airport. It was a two hour round trip for her, so I was grateful and indebted, but she seemed to have no idea how exhausting my travels were for me. During our commute to the University she was non-stop questions and instantly personal. What were my dreams and aspirations? Did I prefer to sleep with men or women? How many times had I had my heart broken? My brain was so clouded with exhaustion that I couldn’t deflect this assault or form coherent replies, the latter of which didn’t seem to matter to her. When we parked at Flinders, we were confronted by a long flight of cement stairs leading to the biology building. I lagged well behind on our ascent, but here is when I uttered my first ignorant and anxiety-motivated question during this visit: Should we be worried about redback spiders? She came back down the stairs and told me that while having lived her entire life in Adelaide she had never seen a living specimen of that species. I pointed down and past her foot and I said, “I think that’s one”. She took a look and she agreed: it was a living redback spider. We continued up the stairs, but I was baffled. How had this woman, so unaware of this deadly spider species, survived to adulthood? Anyway, one hour after arriving in Australia I had escaped injury during this my first deadly Australian animal encounter.

Over the next few days my jet lag receded and I started to get to know many more of the students among my host group. I knew I was making strong personal connections when during a trip to the campus bar one student informed me, “We thought you’d be an asshole”. After asking a few questions, what I think he was saying was that having met my supervisor the year before, that by association I would share many of his qualities. I don’t agree with this person’s opinion of my supervisor, but is there evidence of personality associations between students and supervisors? I leave you, the reader, to ponder that question, and I know that for some of you it would be horrifying if there were positive evidence on the subject. Another indication that I was making connections that afternoon was that I was also invited to join a group to watch a Cricket test on TV. I didn’t admit it at the time, but I thought Cricket was a game that died out a century and a half ago. I can’t have been the only Canadian that is embarrassingly ignorant of the fact that there are well over a billion people that are obsessed with this game. And for those that are aware of the vibrancy of Cricket, and think very little of me now, I want you to know that I became a fan. For instance, I know who Sir Donald Bradman is and I even lived a few blocks away from Centennial Park Cemetery and was present when his ashes were interred there. If you want to impress South Australians in particular, look up “The Don” and memorize a few of his batting statistics, you’ll win over some hearts.

However, this initial introduction to Cricket was painfully dull for me despite my host’s encyclopedic tutorials on rules and traditions. Several times I tried to engage the group in conversational topics other than Cricket. These efforts failed until I asked about swimming locally and the potential for being attacked by sharks. Admitting any anxiety about these dead-eyed predators to a group of Australians is somewhat like the popular notion of adding blood to the water on the behaviour of a shark. Everyone in that lounge room broiled with horrendous attack stories for me to hear. It was hard to keep track, but I think there were at least three people this group knew of directly who had been bitten or killed. When they had clearly shaken me the group switched to trying to assure me that swimming was safe – Listen mate, you have more chance of being struck by lightning. I asked the group to tell me some stories of people they knew that had been struck by lightning. They didn’t have a one! I am not suggesting that means that shark attacks are more common; instead I think it means that lightning strike stories just don’t hold the attention of visitors to Australia. Therefore, there isn’t the same temptation for locals to retell, confuse some details and exaggerate these stories. I have seen other visitors tormented the same way as I was. It seems cruel. We really are worried and have deep fears about shark attacks. Why is that not apparent to our hosts? I think I gained some insight years later when I moved to Adelaide and naturalized (my family and I became CanAussies). A neighbour asked me how, when I lived in Canada, I had the courage to leave my house. I thought they were referring to Canada’s cold winter weather, but instead they meant the bears. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Even Canadians that live in bear country would find that ridiculous – Listen mate, you have more chance of being struck by lightning (I’m strategically leaving Churchill, Manitoba out of this discussion). My point is that Australians see our fears as absurd so teasing us doesn’t seem so wrong.

The author’s children during a 2003 camping trip to the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

The author’s children during a 2003 camping trip to the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

Australians might have sharks in perspective, but not everyone you meet there knows the bush like a Mick Dundee.  Australia is more urbanized then Canada (89.2 % versus 80.7 %). And, among the general population there remains significant fear and ignorance of the wildlife on their Island Continent. Turning again to the deadly redback spider, another neighbour in Australia was using these nifty rake/gloves to bag yard waste. Imagine The Wolverine with webbing between his claws. A redback climbed out of the dried leaves pinned between the gloves and crawled on to the back of my neighbour’s hand and bit him. He told me later that the pain was immediately blazing hot and he was terrified that he would die. That is not what is commonly reported; the bite is usually described as a mild sting with pain sharpening 20 to 40 minutes later. He screamed, got the attention of his wife and she rushed him to emergency where the highly competent staff there encouraged him to ice it, monitored him for a little while and then sent him home. What, not instant death? There is an antivenin but it is not always administered, and there hasn’t been a death due directly to a redback bite post 1956 (when the antivenin was developed). We found a redback in the pouch on the front of my daughter’s bicycle, one in the door of our car, and one under the last step of the spiral staircase in our house. I played volleyball once a week at a sports complex and if our game was the last of the evening we had the job of taking down the nets and turning off the lights. One night a teammate noticed that there was a redback in the light box. He warned us that they can jump two meters and that we needed to stay back. Nonsense. Enough was enough. I stepped up and reached in and turned off the lights. I am certain that this spider was grateful; the dark brings out her preferred prey and it certainly wasn’t volleyball players. While living in Australia, these spiders were a constant in my family’s lives and none of us were ever bitten. It was now easy to imagine how the unobservant woman I mentioned at the start of this piece survived her childhood and adolescent years.

It is now almost two decades that I have been conducting fieldwork in arid Australia. The only animals that have caused me any harm have been ants, it was on that first trip to Australia and it wasn’t that bad. By this time my supervisor had arrived in Australia. Along with an Australian student, my supervisor and I drove from Adelaide to near Brisbane and returned to Adelaide. The trip took us 10 days and we covered over 5000 km, much of it on dirt tracks. We kept the air conditioner off to save fuel and we had the windows down. The work was hot and dusty. I wanted to be seen as a hard working student. I didn’t want to show any weakness on this trip, but by the sixth day late in the afternoon a wall appeared and I ran right into it; I had squatted down in front of a small Acacia bush and was staring blankly through the foliage. I hoped that it would appear that I was still looking for thrips galls, but I was really pretending that I was anywhere but in that desert. So I didn’t notice that several hundred bull ants had crawled up over my boots and socks until they started stinging me. I whooped and leapt around while slapping myself with my hat, and just as I settled down a flat bed pickup truck, off road and appearing to come from nowhere, drove slowly (a trot maybe) past me. There were four people in the cab, two on the cab, two on the bonnet and maybe eight people on the back. In the middle of the eight was a very large and dead red kangaroo: a big boomer. Even though the truck was only meters away, no one made eye contact with me as they past except for a little kid that beamed me a beautiful smile and waved the Kangaroo’s front paw. All these years later that moment remains my most favorite, stings and all.

We took a family vacation to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. It was a three-day drive up from Adelaide, tough to do with little kids. We had only two children’s music tapes, so we heard the tapes a dozen times each. One tape was by the Wiggles. It was the one where the Wiggles ask Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) a question about an Australian animal, like can emus fly? After Steve answered them the Wiggles would then sing a song about that animal. After we heard this tape five times my five-year-old sounding very exasperated bellowed, “Those Wiggles don’t know anything about Australian animals!” To be fair, they probably do know something, and I would say that just like hiking through Canada’s bear country it helps to have a little knowledge about the local wildlife to stay safe. But, fear and ignorance have no place. While traveling in Australia, if you still get talked into putting forks in your hair to ward off dropbear attacks, well then there is no helping you.

 

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Missed Mandate, Missed Biology: The ongoing “Mother Canada” debacle in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Opinion Piece – M. Alex Smith, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph (salex@uoguelph.ca; @Alex_Smith_Ants; www.malexsmith.weebly.com)

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Like many Canadians, I have been hearing more and more about the so-called “Mother Canada” development in Cape Breton Highlands National Park (CBHNP). Proposed by a combination of private funding in partnership with the federal government, this enormous 10-storey memorial is meant to “… be a place for remembrance and gratitude” to Canadians who have “fallen as a result of war and conflict”. Parks Canada has expressed direct support for this monument through actual monetary donations. The erection of such a memorial within a Canadian National Park has garnered much recent interest in the Canadian and international press.

Beyond any aesthetic concerns people may have about the specific plans, in my opinion, there are two critical problems with this monument. The first was pointed out in a Globe and Mail editorial of June 24 2015: it is redundant. Every town and city in Canada already has a memorial to those who have served and sacrificed. My second objection is a combined biological and sociological one. It concerns the location of a private funded monument within a Canadian National Park, where it appears very unclear what the ramifications of that action will be on the fauna in and around the proposed site. The mandate of Parks Canada is elegantly expressed in its charter, “To protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole” while fostering “public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations”. Indeed, 26 former senior Parks Canada managers wrote an open letter to the Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq detailing their objections and that such a plan, “is in violation of the site’s Wilderness Zone designation as detailed in the Management Plan for the Park”.

Beyond the effects of the actual physical construction on the park environment, the monument will potentially increase tourist traffic to the area. How will these changes affect the biota (both animal and plant) of the immediate area? Exactly how well known is that fauna? How was the effect on the sites and the adjacent park environment determined?

A detailed impact analysis was completed by Stantec Consulting Limited who concluded that the effects of the development are, “generally predicted to be negligible to moderate in magnitude”. Conclusions regarding the effect of the construction and development on the “wildlife” of CBHNP were based on a single terrestrial field survey of the locality and a consultation of a CBHNP sightings database. (Stantec is actually listed as a Partner and Supporter of the development). In the Stantec impact analysis, “wildlife” is exclusively mammals and birds. As an ecologist whose professional and personal life is replete with instances of being overwhelmed and delighted by the diversity of arthropods living coincidentally (and cryptically) with their better-studied vertebrate relatives, this raised some concerns.

So what can I offer? Well in 2009, I spent a wonderful time collecting arthropods in CBHNP as part of the BioBus program out of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph. In fact, four colleagues and I spent a night collecting insects at a site only 3 km away from the proposed development (Black Brook and the nearby Jack Pine Trail). The Jack Pine trail was particularly beautiful! The trail goes through a forest of Jack Pine that is more than 200km away from the rest of its range and has survived fire and spruce budworm infestation. At any rate, since all the data is publicly available online (dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP), I thought this would be an opportune time to explore those records in light of the planned “Mother Canada” development.

 

Figure 1: A high resolution GigaPan panorama taken at the Black Brook collection site (http://gigapan.com/gigapans/29312).

Figure 1: A high resolution GigaPan panorama taken at the Black Brook collection site (http://gigapan.com/gigapans/29312).

 

Figure 2: The collection team earlier in the trip in Terra Nova National Park Newfoundland.

Figure 2: The collection team earlier in the trip in Terra Nova National Park Newfoundland.

It was a beautiful night in 2009 (Jul-21) at Black Brook where we collected arthropods using two common methods (UV light (which means lots of moths!) and free-hand active search using insect nets). That night, in about four hours of collecting, we came away with 363 specimens from nearly 200 species (191 named and provisional species based on their DNA barcodes). To put this number in context, CBHNP has 200 species of bird – a total nearly matched for arthropods by our single nights work at one location! This diversity is only a small fraction of the diversity of arthropods currently protected by CBHNP. Via these DNA barcodes, (public on BOLD (www.barcodinglife.org, dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP) we can compare them to the > 4 million DNA barcode records representing >400,000 species worldwide on this database.

What we find from this comparison is that some of these species may be exceedingly rare. Despite concentrated collections in this and other National Parks before and since this night* there are four species which have been found only once out of these millions of records. While this diversity is currently protected by Parks Canada, it is within 3 km of the proposed “Mother Canada” development. It is unclear how the changes in traffic and construction from the development will affect this protected diversity.

Why bring this up now? What use is a rapid analysis of a single night’s collections? I decided to bring it up to call attention to numerous small and cryptic species in and around the location of the proposed development about which we know very little. Going ahead with an enormous private development within a National Park is a mistake that flies in the face of the mandate of Parks Canada – and does so without good evidence that it would not have negative effects on the diversity of animals that it was created to protect.

 

Figure 3: This neighbor-joining tree is a graphical representation of the diversity of nearly 200 species of arthropods collected at Black Brook in July 2009. The taxa are colour coded and are followed by the number of specimens we caught.

Figure 3: This neighbor-joining tree is a graphical representation of the diversity of nearly 200 species of arthropods collected at Black Brook in July 2009. The taxa are colour coded and are followed by the number of specimens we caught.

John Barber (a freelance journalist from Toronto) closed his recent article in the Guardian newspaper with a marvelous quote from Valerie Bird, a WWII veteran and resident of Cape Breton, “It is vulgar and ostentatious,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t belong in a national park, and I don’t think its going to do a darn thing for veterans.” “I think the idea of this horrible thing offends veterans,” she added. “I find it difficult to find words. This is a monstrosity.”

Not simply a monstrosity – but one contrary to of the principle mandate of Parks Canada, “to protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole”. Ultimately, this is the essence of the problem. This issue is more than a simple discussion regarding the aesthetics of a >$25 million, >25-metre tall conglomeration of private and corporate citizens (in apparent partnership with our federal government). If a private group wants to erect a memorial on private grounds and can raise the money for their monument – it is certainly their prerogative. This is a critical discussion about the mandate of Parks Canada and specifically how well they protect the natural heritage resident within that Park.

To place this monument in a National Park is not the right of any private group. To consider placing such a monument in a National Park without careful consideration of the most diverse Park residents (insects, spiders and their kin) is not simply poor planning; it’s poor management and should be stopped.

* -Since that evening in 2009, the BioBus has continued to collaborate with Parks Canada in Cape Breton Highlands National Park and now even more is known about the vast diversity of small and important insects from other areas within this National Park. Collections of arthropods have now been made for 3000 species! For more information about those collections visit the reports section at www.biobus.ca. The author has no current association with the BioBus program. All specimens analysed here are publically available via the public data portal of the Barcode of Life Data System (dx.doi.org/10.5883/DS-ASCBHNP).

Useful websites:

Thanks to Morgan Jackson for helpful thoughts on an earlier draft of this post.
Figure 4 – Shareable infographic outlining information & data presented in this article. Please feel free to circulate.

Figure 4 – Shareable infographic outlining information & data presented in this article. Please feel free to circulate.

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Behavioural observations in nature reveal mating strategies of jumping spiders

—- By Gwylim S. Blackburn & Wayne P. Maddison—-

Animals reveal a lot about their lives simply by the way that they behave. When observed in the wild, they also offer insights to the function of behaviours in a natural context. Capturing these insights just requires a little patience, and attention to the right details.

In a recent study printed in the journal Behaviour, we set out to document Habronattus americanus jumping spider behaviors that would shed light on their ‘mating strategies’—the tactics used by females and males to acquire mates. Specifically, we wanted to know if males show off their flashy displays only to females or also compete directly with each other, if they invest heavily in mate search, and if females are choosy when deciding who to mate with.

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An adult male Habronattus americanus jumping spider travels through beach habitat in British Columbia, Canada. The bright coloration on his face and legs is presented to females during elaborate courtship dances. Photo credit: Sean McCann.

To pursue these issues, we followed 41 adults for up to 30 minutes each, and we also staged interactions between an additional 36 male-female pairs, in natural habitat.

Typical Habronattus americanus habitat is fairly flat, well-drained, and sparsely covered with plants, sticks, or pebbles. Photo credit: Maxence Salomon

Typical Habronattus americanus habitat is fairly flat, well-drained, and sparsely covered with plants, sticks, or pebbles. Photo credit: Maxence Salomon

The behaviours of both sexes pointed quite strongly to indirect male competition for choosy females. Males did not display to (or fight with) each other. Instead, they travelled far and wide, eating nothing but displaying to every female they met. Females, on the other hand, focused on hunting rather than travel, and they almost never permitted copulation despite the vigorous courtship efforts of males.

Collectively, these behaviours supply deeper lessons than their individual functions; they also indicate how natural selection might shape several of the traits involved. In particular, our findings suggest that female mate choice may be the key source of selection favouring the evolution of male display traits.

An adult female Habronattus americanus jumping spider in natural beach habitat. Females are avid hunters. Photo credit: Sean McCann

An adult female Habronattus americanus jumping spider in natural beach habitat. Females are avid hunters. Photo credit: Sean McCann

The apparently high investment by males in mate search also represents a potential factor shaping female mate preferences. In a variety of other species, mate search costs have been shown to provide a way for females to judge the quality of prospective mates. This is because males who are able to pay those costs while still producing an impressive display can make better fathers (e.g., by providing better parental care, or by passing along advantageous genes to their offspring). To determine if this is the case in H. americanus, further research will be needed to see how male condition is linked to the quality of their displays and the success of their offspring.

The Habronattus jumping spiders are famous for their stunning array of male displays. It would be fascinating to know how mating strategies, and the natural surroundings in which they unfold, have influenced this diversity. Behavioural observations of different species in the wild will be essential for getting at this question.

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Costly colouration in a forest moth: the tale of a ten-year research project

As part of the Canadian Entomology Research roundup (the first two posts can be found here and here), we will be sharing more detailed posts from the grad students involved in the published research.

Below is a post from Jessica Ethier, sharing her research experience that spanned an undergraduate and PhD degree.


I just published a paper in Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. From start to finish, the work only took a decade.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2005, I had just finished my first year as an undergraduate student at Concordia University. I had no plans yet for what I would do after graduating; really, I was just glad I’d survived that first year. But across the country, unbeknownst to me, traps were being set, insects were being collected, and by the time I was starting my second year of university here in Montreal, a student at the University of Alberta was busy pulling the wings off a bunch of dead moths.

A horrific sight to innocent insect passers-by.

A horrific sight to innocent insect passers-by.

That student was Kevin Lake. He was doing his undergraduate research project on the effects of population density on wing size and colour in the Malacosoma disstria moth with Maya Evenden and Brad Jones. Fast-forward one year to the fall semester of 2006, and I had now transformed (one might say, metamorphosed) into a seasoned third year undergrad dabbling in research for the very first time. In Emma Despland’s lab, I had a freezer-ful of more dead moths just waiting to be de-winged and studied, and (thanks to Maya and Emma) the protocols Kevin used for wing removal and colour scoring. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, it was 2009 and I had just fast-tracked to a PhD from a Master’s for my research on colour polymorphism and wing melanization in the M. disstria moth.

One of the aims of my graduate research as a whole was to try and figure out why there was always so much individual variation in colour within the genetically-based phenotypes. Emma and I developed an experiment for spring of 2010 to see if limiting dietary protein in the larval stage limited the expression of colour in the adult moth. I even had my very own undergraduate student for the project, Michael Gasse, to rear the insects, process the wings, and collect the colour data. But it wasn’t all rainbows and puppies and pulling wings off dead moths. First we had to get the insects from somewhere.

As luck would have it, there was a forest tent caterpillar outbreak about an hour away from the city that year (for some reason, the landowners – maple syrup producers – were not nearly as gleeful about this infestation of their sugar maple forests as all the members of the Despland lab were). So off we trooped in the middle of February, tree clippers, binoculars, and plastic lunchboxes in hand, to go collect as many egg masses as we could get our mitts on.

You thought the lunchboxes were for lunches? Photo by Alison Loader

You thought the lunchboxes were for lunches? Photo by Alison Loader

Then it was back to school, to spend most of April, May, and June in the sub-basement dungeon lab, slaves to the needs of the exponentially-growing, insatiable eating and pooping machines that we called our experimental subjects.

First instar M. disstria colonies in 30mL hatching cups with artificial diet. Those cups are basically the little plastic shot glasses you see at dollar stores. By the time they reach the final instar, the caterpillars are typically longer than those cups are tall. Photo by Alison Loader.

First instar M. disstria colonies in 30mL hatching cups with artificial diet. Those cups are basically the little plastic shot glasses you see at dollar stores. By the time they reach the final instar, the caterpillars are typically longer than those cups are tall. Photo by Alison Loader.

We all survived another research season, and Mike moved on to wing-pulling and colour scoring a few hundred moths. Time flew by, as time will do, but in 2012 I finally finished and submitted my article on nitrogen availability and wing melanization in the Malacosoma disstria moth!

It was rejected.

Undeterred, I chose another journal and submitted again. And again. And again. After the fourth or fifth rejection, I stopped resubmitting. Not because I was giving up, but because I had to write my thesis and graduate. Once that little matter was taken care of, I went back to my pesky paper. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I realized that the two sections I had divided my paper into just did not complement each other, despite being based on the same experiment. Then I had an epiphany. One of the reasons for forest tent caterpillars to suffer nitrogen limitation in real life is high population density.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Snapshots from two Canadian Entomologists in Honduras

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Catherine Scott and I continue on our Honduran odyssey, finally making it out into the field to begin our work on Red-throated Caracaras. We are working in a medium-elevation pine forest, consisting of mainly Pinus oocarpa and a couple oak species. This makes the surroundings seem very much like the foothills of the Rockies, except the species composition is way off!

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In these pine forests, one of the main defoliating species are fungus-rearing leafcutter ants!

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On some of the flowering plants, mantids lie in wait of unwary pollinators.

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Catherine Scott and Isidro Zuniga, our main Honduran collaborator, check out the cryptic mantid.

Being weird gringos, and something of a novelty, we get great opportunities to chat with curious kids. Some of them are really enthusiastic about birds and insects, and some can be persuaded to show us where to find the cool bugs. 

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We will keep searching out these cool bugs, as our Honduras fieldwork continues. Please stay tuned for more updates from the field, when and where we can fit them in.

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