The exciting things I see make up for the lack of exciting things I do

I spent a good chunk of last week quite angry. For most of the week I was working at a writing retreat and trying to help create an environment in which people felt comfortable to share their research and to receive feedback. I was angry because the main feedback I got was “how does this help people?” and “Oh ho ho spiders are funny” and “LOL you said ‘virgin.’”

It’s not like I haven’t gotten these questions before but after making an effort to understand why others found their own research interesting it struck a nerve which I had thought well-armoured by callouses.

I managed to calm myself down by just thinking that “it’s okay because we’re all going to die eventually.”

I’m not depressed I’m just morbid.

I then got sick which didn’t help my mood because it makes me feel stupid and lazy which are also things which make me angry.

I’m having a bad week. So in addition to thinking about death I have also been thinking about pretty things. Namely, I subscribed to the Nature website and got linked to a new science/art collaborative art project called Living symphonies which is super exciting.



In the coming (British) summer, a pair of artists are going to be going around four different English forests and setting up speakers to play music produced by computer models of animal behaviour. The duo will work with local ecologists to develop a model of animal movements, behaviours and their temporal components and will compose motifs for different behavioural states for each of the animals/organisms.

The result will be a symphony which translates the (inaudible) behaviour and presence of a range of different organisms into music. Furthermore, the models will incorporate time-specific behaviours so that, as the light wanes, presumably the behaviours portrayed through the symphony will change.

The reason why I’m so excited about this is that a) lots of sound/science crossovers have been popping up on various feeds this week and b) this project aims to do so many important things e.g. :

  1. It takes science into the public space
  2. It makes the intangible tangible by
  3. Translating behaviour and species assemblage into something audible (how do i wordpress)
  4. And conveying the ephemeral and time-specific nature of…well, nature.

It probably also struck a chord with me because a friend of mine had sent me a sound clip of some work she had been doing (she’s a composer). Over the summer, she went out into Kepa bush at roughly the same time every day for … I forget but a long long time, and recorded the cicadas. I was excited to hear the recording although I didn’t really know what I was expecting.

She started in the middle of the (real) summer so it began with a roar, as you’d expect, and took some time to peter out but sure enough, through the din you could hear a change in the assemblage and volume of calls – several weeks concentrated down to a two minute of sound-bite.


a) Picture of a cicada to break up the text, b) reason why night field work >>>> day field work


For a while now I’ve felt that there is a lot of compatibility between the goals of scientists and artists: deconstruction and/or construction of patterns of the world around us in order to draw connections between disparate points or to sever outdated connections between ideas. The Age of Enlightenment was defined by attempts to organise the world and saw the rise of natural history and taxonomy through the likes of Carl Linnaeus. During this same period, Johann Sebastian Bach went about composition like a true encyclopaedist, putting together the Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (“The well-tempered clavier”), a collection of preludes and fugues written in every key.

Obvious joke about how Carl (Righ

Obvious joke about how Johann (left) and Carl (right) go to the same hairdresser


Of course, since then the intellectual zeitgeist has gone to several cycles of reaction and revolution but in every period, regardless of the artistic/scientific landscape, scientists and artists are digging deeper into things than most normal people would think sensible and going “hang on, this is cool.”

There’s something very musical about the wax and wane of the cicada chorus over the summer with the interchange of dominant patterns and gentle fade towards the end of the season. But then again, there is a growing field in ecology which is trying to use recording as an efficient way of surveying species diversity with the outlook that a complex community translates into a diverse soundscape (Google “ecoacoustics” or “soundscape ecology”). If science can be driven by a need to find patterns which can make policy possible then art can be about taking disparate components to make something moving.

And it happens in the weirdest places. I saw this go by on twitter the other day. They (who are they?) have found that using sound waves to distort growth media makes it possible to organise cells without rupturing the cells themselves. This obviously has useful applications for growth of tissues in the lab but it also creates beautiful patterns.

Because who wouldn’t want a paisley liver?


Advanced Materials, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201402079

Advanced Materials, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201402079


PhD: Selective memory

Almost three months have elapsed since my last update. Obviously a lot has happened in that time but for the sake of my sanity and for the sake of not turning my poor diary discipline into a mini-thesis, I’m going to go on and pretend that the past three months didn’t happen and just refer to them in future as a little in-joke to myself.

So where am I at right now: Mostly writing permits, planning collecting trips for the summer and measuring spiders at Landcare and the Auckland museum.

I have conducted preliminary allometric analyses on my measurement data for C. foliata males and have found that there is some evidence of an allometric relationship both in male chelicerae size and in the length of their anterior legs. There are some complicating factors about whether to log-transform my data. I have also been reading up on sexual size dimorphism as body size is going to be a very important variable when it comes to examining role of weapon size in predicting fight outcomes.

In other news I also don’t have to keep getting up at 5:30am to drop my boyfriend at a real job. I’m looking forward to getting back some mental alertness.

Next time: Will be within 3 months.

Mistaken hiatus ft. Weird text alignment

As a frequent board game friend says after making a move he shouldn’t have: “mistakes have been made”. I was on holiday last week. I shouldn’t have been. But there we have it.

Furthermore, my days have been taken over (and continue to be occupied) by teaching that I wasn’t told I was meant to be teaching.

On top of that, I’ve been doing night observations for the last couple nights and everything feels like breakfast-time*

But, on a more positive note, I’ve now seen Cambridgea foliata males fighting and I’m becoming more certain that mating probably occurs inside the female’s retreats.  I took a terrible video of it which does nothing but illustrate the potential duration of the conflict (>2 minutes which is longer than I can maintain a one-to-one battle to the death/eviction).

So imagine instead with my crudely drawn visual aids. There’s a large web and a male C. foliata sitting at the retreat (who knows why). The female is visible but seems to be sitting off the main sheet. (By the way, imagine that everything is done with the spiders hanging upside down).

Fighting 1


Fighting 2

I forgot to label the female on the far right

The second male chases the first male around the web for about 20 seconds.

Fighting 3

Eventually, the fleeing male turned and the two started…pushing at each other with their first and second legs.

Fighting 4

Fighting 5

During this time, the males had their chelicerae pushed apart and fangs out. They also held their pedipalps vertically (possibly to keep them out of the way of the fighting).

Fighting 6

After a couple minutes of this scuffling, they eventually went head to head proper for about ten seconds.

Fighting 7

After this brief time, the loser (the resident) moved away from the intruder and the retreat and towards the edge of the web. The latter began to bang his abdomen on the sheet web with the successive beats driving the loser further from the web until he was eventually right at the edge.

Fighting 8

Within a few minutes, the new resident took up the position that the first male had taken at the mouth of the female’s retreat.

Fighting n

The moral of the story: Legs are hard to draw


* I hate breakfast

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.