I’ve already lost count of the week

I am and hungry and mid coffee crash which makes this an ideal time to update blog. Went out to the Waitakere yesterday to collect spiders and collect spiders we did! Lots of C. foliata (I think) and one other species which is basting in 70% ethanol as we sit here contemplating whether my highlighters are arranged in the correct order.

Have one female in my prototype cage and have found a couple problems:

–          She can’t actually climb into the retreat I’ve made for her

–          Spiders don’t like climbing wire mesh

Prototype 2 will have sand glued onto the inside of the retreat and fabric or mesh of some description woven in and out of the wire mesh. Here’s hoping that she takes to it. I think that my current arrangement of the retreat might also be a little counter-intuitive for her so that will be something I’ll change on the next model.

Have another trip down to Waitomo tomorrow. Primary aim is to get really just to get some observations although may also do some collecting on the final night. Not sure if I’ll bother pitfall trapping again since it was really nothing more than a forearm workout last time. If I see lots of males in female webs on the first night then it might be worthwhile.

I may also try to mark males with arthropod paints so that if males make multiple visits to the same female or females on the same tree, I’ll know. But apparently it’s also very possible that males won’t be wandering quite as much as we might have thought. During the trip to Waitakere yesterday we saw three webs in which both a male and a female were present. In the case of two of them the males were sharing the female’s small retreat i.e. they were in quite close quarters. There might be something interesting going on in terms of mate guarding so it will be interesting to see whether males hang around even after mating.

Hopefully will also see a few more pirate spiders (Family: Mimetidae). I collected one and have yet to identify it to species level (NB: I collected two but didn’t realise that they were araneophages until later). From the paper that I skimmed about them, they usually don’t take on prey larger than them so I’m not sure what they were doing with Cambridgea because I can’t think of (m)any New Zealand spiders that would be bigger…

I also found a microscope with a camera. This is a male pedipalp which is a key diagnostic feature for Cambridgea.
Unfortunately I might've put in the wrong scale bars.
Much blur. Very Scientist.

On a spider and scope hunt

Second week back after the break! And the things I have learnt!

For example:

  • Immerse specimens entirely in ethanol for photographs otherwise the surface will distort the appearance of structures and make it difficult to identify species.
  • Spiders are not likely to just eat each other’s abdomens. Those left over shells were probably just moults.
  • When you play Game of Thrones the board game you have to resolve all raid orders and then all march orders depending on house order on the influence track rather than all the orders of single house duh.

i.e. lots of stuff I thought and did was wrong.

The fact that we were playing it wrong doesn’t change the fact that I won and that I am fat stag king

If I could describe how the learning process feels at this stage: It’s like finding and eating delicious muffins only to have someone much larger and stronger than you come along and thump you on the back of the head so you spit it all out because they weren’t muffins, they were lies and rocks. Afterwards, you’re glad that someone came along to rectify your mistake (usually your supervisor) but you also have a welt on the back of your head.

But onward!

At this stage, the most important thing for me to do is to see some behaviour happening as, according to the records Cambridgea collections, they do occur for much of the year meaning that collection for the purpose of measurements can be much more flexible. It may be a week or so before I can get back down to Waitomo so at this stage the aim is to collect some males and females from Waitakere and do observations under the house.

I’m also designing spider homes. The most important thing is that the spiders have some sort of scaffolding to build their spiders on, have a dark, narrow retreat which they can stay in during the day and that there’s some way for me to see into that retreat just in case the bastards spiders decide to mate inside the retreats.

The other thing I have to do is locate a microscope which I can use to take better photographs and do measurements of weapons and genitalia. Once I find one I also need to find someone to hold my hand and show me how it all works because I spent an hour and a half trying to save a photograph on the Olympus in the lab. (I didn’t figure it out).

Moral of the story: Any game which lets you announce ‘I’m going to march into Kingslanding with my siege catapult’ is a good game.

Feat. The Hobbit; Desolation of Smaug

Apparently I might as well give up telling people that Cambridgea are not trouser-ruining, nightmare fuel because not only do they look like spiders in the movies but their chelicerae are even larger.

Can I get an ‘om nom’?

[Late] ‘So what’s your PhD on?’; Waitomo trip 2 Wednesday 18th Dec – Friday 20th Dec 2013 and Happy [insert preferred holiday]

Although other PhD students had suggested otherwise, I reckon that the thesis proposal seminar can’t be more gruelling than running the social gauntlet called ‘December’. Christmas function after Christmas function after family get-together after beach road trip. It’s like we honestly believe that civilisation as we know it might end on December 31st and we literally have x number of days to see each other before we are all transformed into giant tiger prawns by the rising 2014 sun.

Now I accept that my PhD thesis topic is so blue-sky that you should be able to see out of the stratosphere. So when family/friends/acquaintances/my own doubts ask me ‘so what is your research going to contribute to society?’, my face does not look the way it does because I have, for the first time, been forced to confront the uselessness of my own field of study. At most, I’m just running through the list of comebacks I formulated from the last time that I was asked that question: five minutes prior1.

But before the university closed on the 20th, a few of us managed to get into the field near Waitomo for a bit of late night harvestmen and sheet-webs spider voyeurism. 

Booo field work

The activities for the period included:

  1. manual searching, the technical term for [from here on ‘tttf’] my holding containers are arms-length and trying to close them over giant spiders;
  2. pitfall trapping, tttf digging holes for plastic containers so that the top is flush with the ground with a lid elevated slightly above the ground so that insects/arthropods fall in overnight and can’t get out again;
  3. observations ranging from between 1.5 to 2 hours in length, tttf sitting in the dark with a red light and watching spiders do nothing.

The idea was that pitfall traps would help me to catch males which will wander around to find females in their webs. We were a little short on time so on the first day I identified a few sheet-webs and put the pitfall traps near the tree trunk. Asides from a few tiny beetles these didn’t fetch much which isn’t really that unexpected given that the containers were only out for two nights, I had no idea initially whether the webs actually even had spiders (although most of them did when I checked during the night), and males are apparently less active during December (of all months).

Manual searching (read: moderately frightened flailing) was a little more successful. The last time I’d been to Waitomo I’d collected the wrong species (Stiphidion facetum, not Cambridgea spp. duh.) but this time I think I actually found some Cambridgea spp. which is different from the species that I collected in the Waitakere’s which are now living under my house and are laying eggs yay. 

The females collect up debris from the base of the enclosure and encase the egg case – I probably should’ve left more for them.

What was also interesting was that I found several bodies sans abdomen in the webs of a large-ish female (?). It looks like a couple males and a couple females of the same species. Maybe I’m being an idiot (always possible) but they don’t look like moults so while I don’t want to come to any conclusions until I’ve seen it happening, I wonder whether the ratbags are cannibalising each other. Common (un)knowledge(?) says that spiders do not ingest their prey whole sale which raises the question of how they would be ingesting the bloody abdomen but it may be that the chelicerae play some role in mushing (technical term) up the prey for external digestion.

Oh the humanity


I might have a better idea after the break as I have a large male in the freezer along with his weta prey. I’d caught him after an observation nomming on the weta in his web so it will be interesting to see how much of the weta is left in the container.

Another interesting thing I saw during that particular observation is that there is a certain species of smaller spider which might be parasitizing the sheet-web spider’s kill. I caught a couple of them in a container. They would be maybe a 20th of the size of the sheet-web spider and would very very carefully approach the prey item, perch on a point that wasn’t too close to the larger spider and… … I assume it was eating. Red light. More like lame light.

There are a couple different species which seem to hang out on the edges of these webs and I think it would be interesting to identify these guys – could possibly just do an observation on a web and try to collect the whole structure and all its occupants. As I said, I already collected two of one species by which I mean I now I have one because I kept them in one container and the larger ate the lesser. #Studyingcarnivores.

The university is closed at the moment so I’m looking forward to doing some keying up and getting a handle on how to measure chelicerae size and genital morphology. I’ll have to go back at some stage to do more observations and pitfall trapping but at the very least I think I have several specimens from several different species which will be helpful for constructing a molecular phylogeny.

Also caves are cool and we got to knock harvestmen off the ceiling with broken stalactites.

P1020161 v2
Also voyeurism is hard as are cameras

1 One I would like the chance to use is ‘it’s not about what the study of spider genitals contributes to society. It’s about how long the study of spider genitals can keep deviants like me locked away in a basement laboratory’

Week 5 – Intensive workshops; portal fantasies of the modern age in that I honestly believe that foods I eat while away on them don’t count in the real world.

Last week I was in Wellington for a workshop in which 27 ‘young people’ were brought in my the McGuinness Institute to be a sounding-board for the Treasury’s new(ish) Living Standards framework – a policy analysis tool used to ensure that non-economic factors are considered (e.g. social infrastructure, sustainability, equity, risk-management) when discussing and making decisions around public policy.

And that is the most boring sentence I have written for zero academic credit.

Living standards are now my friends. And they live in Wellington.

A week ago, I was dreading going down even though it was entirely funded by the McGuinness institute – flights, taxis, meals, accomodation, ice blocks and pomegranate cordial – everything. But I was also aware that, in spite of studying a wide range of subjects, my understanding of the economy is about on par with my understanding of the Higgs Boson in that I suspect that they both exist.

Basically, I expected to be asked to apply myself to a task outside of my area of general knowledge let alone my area of expertise, to feel completely out of my depth, and to be  surrounded by young people who were younger and better acquainted with every aspect of what we were doing. I also expected that, given the strength my fears and how often things tend to work out this way, it would probably be an amazing experience which would augment my own knowledge, connect me with interesting, intelligent and motivated people and help me shake off the creeping vine of stagnation called ‘2013’.

Ergo – it was everything I intellectually expected but was personally unprepared for.

This is what awed learning looks like.

I feel a little bad actually. I was the only person from a science background there so I actually had the most to learn from the experience and from my peers. I literally hovered on the edges of conversation just to listen to discussions with zero intention of participating. Once I got brave enough I would bring up topics which I had only the smallest amount of understanding of and would then let the group take off while I poached the fruits of their education.

I was completely out of my depth. But the fact that I had the opportunity to learn from New Zealand and international economists and from my peers while not being shunned as a leper or greasy lab rat who never does work which directly benefits people and pours over insect naughty bits late into the…wait…

The point is, I did get voluntary facebook friend invites so they at least thought I deserved the common courtesy of being categorised into the awkward online acquaintance basket.

So. I now know the difference between macro-economics and micro-economics, what ‘externalities’ are, what ‘social infrastructure’ is and I have met a wide range of highly intelligent young people whom I might never have met because their primary areas of interest differ so significantly from my own.

On the first day of the workshop, we attended an annual economics conference and, while I didn’t quite understand all of the vocabulary, the similarities to biology were undeniable. Seriously. Economics is awesome and is literally ecology dedicated to humans. Probably explains the shared etymology. Game theory, cost/benefit analyses, behavioural economics, regression and statistics – from what I can tell as a layperson, economics is the study of human behaviour in which money is the guiding measure of ‘value’, taking the place of reproductive output in biology.

It makes a lot of sense even though I never thought of it that way.

In practical news. In the next two weeks before the university shuts down for Christmas and New Years, I’m aiming to get in contact with relevant iwi for sampling up North, to get some locusts in to feed my specimens under the house and to get familiar with some of the spider families by keying up some pitfall-trap by-catch and comparing my guesses with pre-keyed specimens.

I’m also going to get my hair dyed green. And on the day that I got back from the workshop I watched 16 episodes of Parks and Recreation because midnight burger king (cf. title) and Courtenay Place tend to kill the Friday afternoon PhD vibe.

edited livingstandards
I was born in March 1990. I don’t know what that means.