Thursday, 16 October 2014

Unwilling captives

Since I was tiny I have liked animals. My mam has recently highlighted this by emailing me (and posting on Facebook...) photos of smaller Vikki with an animal or two. These days my focus is studying them, but I've also kept them captive a lot. So far I have been able to overcome every challenge presented by species kept in captivity and, not to blow my own trumpet, but I have kept a few - rats, mice, snails, ladybirds, devil's coach horses, songbirds, raptors, stick insects, snakes, lizards, frogs, mantids, millipedes, scorpions, spiders and others. Most have been challenging at some time or other, but there's always something that can be done to make a captive specimen thrive.

And then there are Cantuaria.

They sit stubbornly on the surface of the beautiful clay soil that I have painstakingly dug up and pressed down, layer by layer, humidity monitored closely to mimic their natural habitat. They stay like statues, legs pulled in, thoroughly unhappy. I leave them for days and perhaps they build a shallow hole and a trapdoor and then they die in it. I did manage to keep one juvenile that had just left her mother's burrow for a month, and she built a fine tunnel and took prey. Then for whatever reason she decided her tunnel wasn't good enough any more, and she left it, built a shallower one, and died. It's sad, really sad, because these spiders haven't done anything to deserve this stressful existence that I have created for them. I am an incompetent god.

I have to keep them, though, for a couple of studies that will be awesome if they work. So I have been experimenting. Jars filled with soil didn't work. Buckets filled with soil didn't work. Then a few weeks ago, I was sent some spiders in the post from Invercargill. They were shipped in cotton wool. Each spider had built a deep tunnel in the cotton wool. So now, I am experimenting with the two captives I have left. One is in a tall jar with damp cotton wool, and one is in a tall jar with damp clay (I sieved it to make sure that only clay is present in the soil...). I have only just put them in there, but I hope they like it. Based on instructions on how to keep African red trapdoor spiders, which are in the same family (Idiopidae), my Cantuaria should make burrows in this. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

One year into the PhD...what have I done, exactly?

This time last year, I enrolled as a PhD student. I have just enrolled for my second year. I have to do reports for my funders, so this is a good time to review what I have done.

What I said I would have done by now:
Completed my proposal and seminar
Collected female specimens from throughout NZ
Pitfall trapped males
2 conferences with presentations
Completed sequencing for phylogeny (yeah, right!)
Measured explanatory variables for genetic variability study

What I have actually done (completed objectives in bold):
Completed my proposal and seminar
Collected female specimens from throughout NZ
Been handed some males from the public, and pinpointed good places to set pitfall traps
2 conferences with presentations
Begun sequencing for phylogeny
Found someone to help me with genetic and ecology fieldwork early next year

So I have only really completed half of my objectives. But, looking back, my proposal was supposed to be unrealistic - it was trying to convince the university that I really could do everything in three years. I could probably have done all of that stuff, apart from completing sequencing, but not so thoroughly as to do it justice. I think I have done the most important stuff to a sufficient standard: I have specimens, and I've started doing stuff with them.

In addition to the stuff I said that I would do, I have started to collect venom for an exciting project that will probably fail but hopefully won't (more importantly, it will give me some experience which might help me to get a postdoc). I have a couple of collaborations that I am working on, and I have done a fair bit of public outreach (articles for magazines and newsletters, and advertising my project, and talking to people and showing them spiders). I've nearly finished a manuscript to send to a spider journal. I've also got a bit of teaching experience. This stuff is more career-building than PhD-building but it is really important; some of my friends who are completing their PhDs fear this black hole that they will fall into when it is all done and they have no postdoc.

I've learned a hell of a lot in the past year, and enjoyed the vast majority of it. My work ethic has fluctuated a bit - the best time was when I was living walking distance away from uni, and didn't have much in the way of friends, so I could come in at 9, be strict with myself and leave at 5. Now living in town and carpooling and having friends (most of which get up in the early afternoon and work till late evening, which doesn't suit me at all), I find it hard to work an 8 hour day. I'm still getting stuff done, but I need to be stricter with myself.

This last year has been a blast, and I'm looking forward to the coming year. Hopefully I'll do a bit better at meeting my objectives, but overall I don't think I have been unsuccessful this year.