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.