Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A stab in the dark

Last Friday, I finished the first draft of my proposal. It's totally rough around the edges, but the bulk of it is there and I'm waiting on comments. I'd been putting off collecting, mainly because it is a major distraction from writing. But on Monday night I went out with my advisor and another guy who was really into spiders and knew where we could find some Cantuaria dendyi.

Finding lidded Cantuaria burrows is hard. Essentially, you are trying to find a particularly neat patch of soil, around a centimetre across (for the adults). To me it seems worse than looking for a needle in a hay stack - more like looking for a piece of hay that is ever so slightly more orangey than the rest of the haystack. However, apparently you get better with experience; the two guys found most of the burrows, but they would point at a patch of soil and say "There's one!" and I would be looking for ages before I saw the neat little hint of a lid. You have to hand it to these spiders - they are good at being invisible.

After we'd marked a few burrows with sticks, we waited for nightfall. In the dark, trapdoor spiders move to the tops of their burrows and wait beneath the lid for something crunchy to walk by. Tiny prey legs trigger the tripwires laid around the entrance of a burrow. A piece of grass drawn gently over the tripwires brings the spider out a little way, but to get them to come further I tied a piece of thread around a beetle (between the thorax and abdomen) and held onto the loose end. Under a red light (which spiders cannot see by), the beetle would stumble idiotically towards the lid of the burrow. The lid would twitch, fluffy spider toes would flick out, then eventually the bulk of the spider would lunge forward and grab the beetle, wrapping the front two pairs of legs around until the unfortunate prey disappeared. At the same instant, someone would thrust a trowel into the ground behind the entrance to the burrow. You have to be quick - they can go backwards at an incredible speed.

We collected four spiders. The next day I put one in a beaker and showed her around to pretty much everyone in the department (probably even some people I had never met before. In hindsight I may have come over a little crazy). She looked impressive, at least 2.5 cm long, hurtling around the beaker. I put some soil in buckets and poked holes for the spiders with a pen, and three went in easily. But the one that I had been messing with was not happy. When mygalomorphs (ancient spiders, like trapdoors and tarantulas) are really annoyed, they raise their front pairs of legs and expose the underside of their prosoma (the front half of the spider). If you continue to annoy them, they will usually bite. This one not only bit the tweezers I was using to usher her into her hole, she wrapped her whole body around them. I poked her abdomen to make her go forward but instead she spun around in an instant and went into the warning stance again. For an animal that never walks more than a metre, they are extremely fast.

Finally she went into her hole. They were all out of their holes this morning, but I expect they will settle down. One of them I have retrieved to give to my advisor, but the others I will keep for a while to see what they do.

I saw clusters of tiny, pebble-like mites on two of the spiders we collected. They will be useful for my project, as I would like to see if they evolve along similar patterns as the spiders they inhabit. I seem to have been targeted by parasites as well - since Monday night I have had big welts on my fingers that itch like hell. One of the disadvantages of mucking about with foliage at night, I guess.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Spiritualism and mint

I have been away this week at a systematics conference, the second conference I have ever been to (if you count the International Congress of Arachnology as a conference, which it definitely was, and it definitely was not just one big party). The talks at conferences are interesting and may contain some useful information, but they are not really important (except for the speaker). The dinners, drinks, and constant snacking that goes on in between the talks are the important bit. This week’s conference had introductory snacks, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and post-session snacks, during which you must pluck up the courage to force yourself on other terrified delegates and try to either be useful to them, or glean something useful from them, or kindle a friendship that will make the next break time less awkward.

Systematics is the study of evolutionary patterns, and it encompasses research involving phylogenetics, biogeography, taxonomy etc. I was interested in the biogeography talks in particular. Most of the delegates were plant people, so they tended to focus on plant biogeography. Apparently that involves a lot of discussion about biomes - geographical areas that fit into certain stereotypes such as desert, temperate rainforest, etc. (that's not the real definition but it's what they seem to boil down to). They were all pretty subjective and there was much discussion over which parts of Australia are desert, which are tropical monsoon forest and which are tropical rainforest and which are just tropical forests. I went to a couple of talks that were just fun as well - one on marine "spiders" (Pycnogonidae, which aren't actually spiders), one on fish.

At the conference dinner, there was no space at the table where the main invertebrate people were sitting, so I joined a table with total strangers. They all studied botany, and confused me with plant-type stuff (how can bananas be a grass?). The guy to the right of me studied mint (which apparently includes basil, rosemary, and pretty much every garden herb except for tarragon, which is a daisy (wha?)). We had some interesting and fun conversations although he did drink a lot, and drunk people make me nervous. The lady to my left was really nice, and it turned out she was a bit spiritual and spent time with Buddhists. I'm not keen on stuff like that since there's no evidence behind it and it seems to be mostly wishful thinking and delusions. But she was great company and we got into some quite deep and meaningful conversation.

There was a workshop after the conference that was especially for women at the beginning of their careers in science. It's pretty tough for women in science, as the entire field is basically a gigantic boys' club. So I enjoyed getting some advice and support from successful women, and we had some interesting discussions which were too long to put up here (but I'll email you a copy of my notes if you ask).

Although pretty much everyone studied plants, and I already knew the spider people, I managed to get some advice and comments from other invertebrate people. I learnt some useful things from the talks, even the plant ones (after all I was interested in the systematics, not the taxa). Most important of all, I practised my networking, socialising and presenting skills which don't often get brought out into daylight. Also for some reason I bought a book on flying mammals. I have nothing to do with flying mammals. But the book had really beautiful illustrations.

Finally, the best thing that happened to me during the conference (in fact, probably the best thing that has happened to me all year - and it's been a good year overall) was that I got an email from a trust saying that they would fund my stipend (salary) and my research. So now I am pretty much fully funded. I have no worries or big clouds over my head any more because I really get to do this research now, and also live in a house and run a car and eat at the same time. So now I can just focus on the important things, and enjoy this worry-free time until challenges start to arise within the execution of my project. I'm at the airport now, heading back to Christchurch, and I can't wait to get home and finish my proposal.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Treasure hunting

I am writing the methods section of my proposal. This is the part I have been looking forward to the least: finding out about stuff that I find difficult, wading through thick, sludgy papers with abstract nouns and acronyms and maths floating in them like giant sludge monsters. In the past it has been hell trying to learn anything about what software does (other than vague descriptors such as "demographic history estimation"), or how to use it.

This time, the learning process is a little different (at least so far). It is less like wading through a polluted mud flat and more like a treasure hunt. I guess I have become habituated to some of the jargon and it doesn't intimidate me any more (though I certainly don't understand what most of it means, and looking it up is confusing rather than clarifying). I can just skim over it, pluck out what I need and move on. As an undergraduate I was always told to read every paper all the way through, but ignoring that advice with regards to computer programs and statistics has saved me a lot of time, frustration and feeling like an idiot. I can chip away at the rest of the information in the papers once I have got to grips with the program, and maybe that will help me to do more things or improve my results.

In other news, I have got my hands on a leaf blower which will hopefully locate Cantuaria burrows by flipping up the trapdoor lids. I'm hoping to go looking for the spiders some time this week, and I'm also going to put out some pitfall traps and ramp traps (an alternative to pitfall traps which doesn't involve digging a hole) to see if I can collect some spiders that way. Since only male Cantuaria are supposed to wander about (unless a female is infected with a gigantic nematode which makes her head for water), I'm not too hopeful about the trapping as their mating season isn't until around April. But the leaf blowing will hopefully be fruitful.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

How did the spider cross New Zealand?

Questioning the distribution of animal species seems a bit pointless. All kinds of animals are in all kinds of places, for all kinds of reasons - who cares?

Biogeographers care. If you think about it, you can tell quite a lot about an animal's ecology, a country's geology, and evolutionary biology by looking at the distribution of species - not just the way they are today, but how their distribution has changed throughout time.

I'm interested in the biogeography (or phylogeography, which applies more to closely related species and individuals) of a genus of trapdoor spiders called Cantuaria. They're odd sorts, digging tunnels underground, living for a long time, and taking surprisingly good care of their offspring. Particularly interesting from a biogeographical point of view is the fact that, when the babies do decide to leave their mum at 6-8 months of age, they walk a few centimetres and then plonk themselves down, build a burrow and live there for the rest of their lives. Right next to their mothers' burrow. Maybe if it's a bit crowded, or there isn't enough food to go around, they might move a bit further but they are hardly aspiring adventurers. You certainly wouldn't expect them to travel vast distances across an ocean. It came as a surprise to me that they are distributed throughout New Zealand, from Stewart Island in the south right up to the North Island. The first thing I thought was that they must have been in New Zealand (or the mostly submerged continent of Zealandia, of which New Zealand is a small part) for a long time. That's ok, I thought, New Zealand has a lot of flightless ancient animals that were on Zealandia when it broke away from Australia. How else can you explain kiwi?

...except that it didn't. The traditional view that New Zealand's animals have been separated from Australia since the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana falls apart with the addition of modern techniques. Molecular clocks, which tell us roughly when modern species started growing (diverging) out of ancestral species, show New Zealand's wildlife to be much newer than we thought. There is also evidence that it went through a bottleneck (a time when there weren't many individuals around) around the Oligocene, and that most, if not all, of Zealandia was under water during the Oligocene.

So my main question is how did trapdoor spiders cross New Zealand? How have such agoraphobic creatures spread themselves so far?

Most of the 42 Cantuaria species (reasonably numerous for a spider genus) are in the South Island, which is conveniently where I live. As well as using genetic study to see how many species there are, where they are and most importantly how they got there, I will study their lifestyle and relationship with their habitat and each other (in other words, their ecology). The ecological projects will help develop my understanding of Cantuaria phylogeography, but they will also contribute towards conserving Cantuaria and their natural habitat. Such unique and important creatures need to be preserved for the sake of future research, and for the sake of New Zealand's natural environment.

In a nutshell, that is my topic, the working title of which is "The phylogeography and conservation ecology of the trapdoor spider genus Cantuaria". I'll post more information on each individual project as I get into it a bit more.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Time to write a proposal

I've written, scrambled, summarised and expanded on my project for various funding and scholarship applications. Funding "proposals" must be simple, concise, and sell the project as something that really needs doing. I have mostly been focusing on the conservation benefits of my project, and not going into too much detail with the methods.

Now, I have to write a proposal for the university. Although the primary purpose is to convince my university that I can do this project and that it is worthwhile, it's also a really useful thing for me. Writing a longer, more detailed proposal allows me to think really carefully about my project, how I'm going to do everything, how long each part will take. I have a lot of thoughts floating around my head so it's great to get them down in order and organise things a bit. However, there is also a lot of learning to do, as my undergraduate degree didn't really cover any of this stuff. So I have many a book out from the library, many a paper downloaded, and many a cup of tea.

In the first two days of writing my proposal, I wrote a sentence and a half. On the third day, I deleted the first sentence and completed the half. That was only because I was reading a lot, honestly! This is how it seems to always be with academic writing; it takes a while to get into the swing of it. Things are indeed improving, as on Friday I wrote a page and today so far I have written a paragraph.

At the same time as I am writing, I am trying to improve my writing style. Academic writing is very easy to do badly, especially because nobody really gets trained in it and all the constructive criticism I get on my writing style is really just opinion. This is something I feel strongly about, because I dream of a world where scientists and non-scientists alike will willingly and painlessly read papers in academic journals, understand and discuss them. People will make informed decisions based on original research, because it will be set out clearly in a way that everybody can understand and nobody can ignore. So I'm reading a really good (so far) book, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, and trying really hard to make my proposal interesting and easy to read without sacrificing the information it contains.

It's probably time for me to tell you about my project. Next post, I swear!

Monday, 30 September 2013


Today is my first day of officially being a PhD student. This blog will, I hope, chronicle my adventures into the deeper world of science. As well as blogging about themes related to my project, I will detail other things affecting my career and my work.

I hope that this blog will be of some use to those students considering undertaking a PhD; I know there is a lot of confusing and often frightening information out there about what a PhD entails. Most of it seems to be pretty accurate, judging by what my friends have been through, but as a relentless optimist I hope to show the brighter side of academia while remaining honest about its darker side.

In addition to its usefulness for other potential students, I hope my writing will appeal to a wider audience. I will not use jargon without explaining it, and will do my best to give an honest but light-hearted representation of my subject and the world of science. It should also be illuminating to those who are interested in spiders (or even those who are afraid of them!), as my project concerns trapdoor spiders in the genus Cantuaria. If you are a Miss Muffet (arachnophobe), please do not let my subject put you off. The more you learn about something, the more you understand it, and the less you fear it. Trapdoor spiders are harmless, chunky, sedate spiders who spend their whole time in their burrows and generally do not venture into human habitation (except for the males, who wander when they are looking for love). They do not have long legs, they are not aggressive and they do not bite unless you try very hard to annoy them (and even then they give you a warning).

Finally, I hope to use this blog to gain ideas and advice from other scientists. If you see in my writing that I have done something badly, wrongly or inefficiently, please do not hesitate to say so; I thrive on criticism. If you have ideas, experiences, questions, or similar, please post them or contact me.