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!