Science and arts; the imaginary war i.e. I took the Bob Jones click bait

Edmund is saddened
Edmund is saddened

I do not, as a general rule, agree with Sir Bob Jones which makes me reluctant to comment on his most recent opinion piece criticising the preferential treatment science and engineering faculties receive in New Zealand over the liberal arts. He marks out Steven Joyce specifically for his comments relating the government’s shifting funding from arts and economics towards sciences and engineering.

Sir Jones argues that there has never been a greater need for liberal arts graduates, suggesting that such members of society act as an ethical rein and bridle to the bucking bronco that is technological and scientific advancement.

I am obviously a fan of the liberal arts, having spent several grand to study them on top of the biology degree and it saddens me to think that arts departments are down-sizing and that enrollments are down for those degree programs. If I had the means, I would expand the university campus to include downtown Auckland; I’d put in a flying fox to the marine lab on Princes Wharf; I would purchase The Quadrant so that biology students could grow and husband (is that the verb for ‘husbandry’?) their plants, bugs and miscellaneous life forms in different rooms; and I would shift the audiovisual library down into the IMAX centre. But I can’t. The main point that I’m trying to make here is that I want the university to have all the moneys but I realise that ‘all the moneys’ is not a real thing and that someone generally has to lose out. Having said that, I don’t know how justified the shift in funding is and I’ve already dedicated enough time to excusing myself from having an opinion about something which I don’t know enough about.

So the main reason that I wanted to comment on Jone’s opinion piece is because it propagates a problematic stereotype about the nature of sciences and scientists and distracts attention from more pressing problems with a centuries old false dichotomy and with auguries of a nigh juvenile dystopic future.

My direct response would be: liberal arts graduates are not the stewards of ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’ just as much as scientists are not inherently ‘single-minded’ automatons who unthinkingly facilitate the production of bigger and worser weapons and tinker with the sacred, holistic bundle of fairy dust glued together with hazy white light that is the human body. Scientists and engineers are people who go home at night (or during the day) and watch the news (or read it on their tablets) and lie awake at night thinking about death and about how their cholesterol is too high.

In addition, three further points: a) the arts and the sciences are not in some sort of turf war and b) eternal life is down the road, not on the door step, and c) there are bigger things to worry about. There have been books, lectures, everything agonising over the unbridgeable gap between the sciences and the liberal arts. The issue is second only to the gap between science and religion in my list of false dichotomies. We do not have the means to fully reject the idea that some sentient force exists somewhere beyond the universe perhaps and liberal arts and science do mix. I know because I did a course on the history of science last year and I studied a Science and literature course in my undergrad and I have a friend who studied philosophy of science. While I would argue that science education at a tertiary level could afford to provide a little more historical context to the development of the scientific process itself and there is a need for more science communicators like Dr Siouxsie Wiles, to demarcate sciences over here and humanities over there betrays a failure to understand either.

Both an example of liberal arts, creative arts and science intersecting but also generally great
Both an example of liberal arts, creative arts and science intersecting but also generally great

As a final note – and this is a nitpick – worrying about the difficulties in picking up ladies who look 26 but are in their 80s (oh no an old woman horrors of horrors truly there is nothing worse) is not an issue yet (indeed if it ever will be). More important right now: thugs like Montsanto. That corporation and their patented GMOs and indentured farmers are a real example of business and intellectual property savvy folks taking advantage of scientific developments while the media argues about whether GMOs are ethical at all. Regardless of whether we’re ready for GMO crops, they exist and we need science communicators who can translate jargon to the public now and we need policy makers to get science literate now. Science is a method of thinking, it’s not a fire starter – that would be greed.

And did I just get sucked into reacting to a Herald correspondent who is possibly only kept on because of his ability to divide readers with his inconsequential opinions?

Week 1 Day 1 – Dear Diary, today I.

I’m already lost. Literally. My day started with wandering around the university wondering what to do because my designated desk still had its previous occupant’s possessions on it.
So I found one of two trusty companions of western adulthood, coffee (the other being wine), and took stock.


Today I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland in the department of Biological Sciences. The current plan is that my PhD project will the reproductive behaviour and morphology of New Zealand sheet-web spiders Cambridgea spp. with a particular focus on how these behaviours compare between different species within the group.

This is likely to involve the study of male-male competition using both behavioural observations and morphometric analyses of male weaponry i.e. fang thingies called ‘chelicerae’. Depending on which species I ultimately focus on, it may also involve comparison of male genitalia and other reproductive appendages as there is evidence to suggest that there are differences within the males of single species.

I also have an interest in issues around science communication and am trying to find a way in include a reflective component in my PhD which would involve a qualitative analysis of how primary biology research is communicated to the public with the hope of using my own research as a case study.

This week’s goals:

a. Begin reading up on the major areas of research and start developing a sense of the profiles of each of the fields
b. Do the academic integrity module which is compulsory for all doctoral students
c. Get myself a swipe card (which is not necessarily the easiest job on this list)
d. Begin identifying spiders to focus on and use to develop a phylogeny
e. Make as many bad puns as possible
f. Brush up on spider morphology because my main experience so far has been in insects.

I will probably come back in three years, read the preceding paragraphs and laugh/cry/both. But it will be okay because, by that time, I will be a fully fledged…something.

If you put cotton wool in your ears, 'doctoral' almost sounds like 'duck turtle'
If you put cotton wool in your ears, ‘doctoral’ almost sounds like ‘duck turtle’

Mantises eating mantises to make mantises

So last time was wining and dining with insect people. This time it’s back to dining *hur hur*.


To recap on sexual conflict: it happens whenever the optimal reproductive strategy (i.e. means of maximising one’s reproductive output) of one sex encroaches on that of the opposite sex and this happens because eggs are like elephants and sperm are more like ants – there are a helluva lot more of the latter but the former are a helluva lot bigger. (The analogy ends there. I wouldn’t want to suggest that eggs are scared of sperm like elephants and ants are…).

So while sexual conflict reflects a common inequality in gamete size/availability across many sexually reproducing species, the way that this conflict manifests varies significantly. One such way is through the development of clasping behaviours and structures in male water striders as I discussed in my first post with these structures helping males defend their ladies against any hopeful rakes. Another such way is through sexual cannibalism.

Would it be a surprise to anyone if I said that I was never met with glazed eyes whenever my research came up? Mild disgust, yes. Morbid fascination, sometimes. ‘Does that have any commercial applications?’, you’d be surprised. Most commonly, ‘Pardon?’ (Read: ‘I had only asked because I was being polite so I was only half listening but if I heard correctly then this conversation has taken a turn for the surprising. Let me charge your glass so you might tell me more of kinky insect noms’.)

This is what sexual cannibalism is according to the internet (with safe search on):


I don’t want to go into all the reasons sexual cannibalism makes such good nightmare fodder in erotic horror fiction and also don’t want to go into all the consequences that this interest has for the study of sexually cannibalistic species. There is an ongoing debate about this which has reached the internet already. I might go into detail one day but not now.

Instead the point I want to make is that the reason why sexual cannibalism is such an interesting behaviour in a biological context. The simple reason is that the sex enforcing this extreme behaviour are females rather than males. The previous example of male water striders clinging to resistant females is a much more common pattern while in the case of sexual cannibalism, females are very much the ones enforcing the costs.

It can be hard to reconcile how a behaviour which kills a member of one’s own species could possibly be maintained or even be developed in the first place and there are a number of conflicting hypotheses as to how cannibalism can be maintained. The main one I want to look at is called the ‘Adaptive foraging hypothesis’ which was central to my study of the springbok mantis, Miomantis caffra. This hypothesis suggests that sexual cannibalism is a foraging strategy employed by females in times of food limitation and it entails a subset of hypotheses about how this behaviour will manifest. (Aggressive spillover is another major contending set of hypotheses (2)).

To understand how sexually cannibalistic could prove an advantageous hunting strategy you have to remember how spiders and praying mantises live. Both species are cryptic sit-and-wait predators. Spiders generally hide in cracks or in corners while mantises are generally very well camouflaged to their environments and neither will tend to move unless disturbed. The advantage of this is that they can avoid detection by predators and potential prey. Hence they ‘sit-and-wait’. The downside of this strategy is that, if there aren’t many flies around that season, then there’s not a lot that they can do about it.

But female spiders and mantids have a way around this. Females of both species emit long distance sex pheromones from their bodies or, in the case of spiders, from their silk. These airborne chemicals (Chanel/Dior etc.) are detected by males who race to reach the female and mate with her. So, if food is scarce and females are particularly hungry, it only makes sense to ‘make use’ of the males who turn up of their own volition.

And a female consuming males due to low availability of food isn’t just about ensuring that the female doesn’t starve. It seems that female body condition (think of it as an arthropod BMI) can be strongly related to the number of eggs that female can produce aka her ‘fecundity’. She’s not just hungry. She’s not eating for two so much as 401.

Now there is a complication. There are two ways that sexual cannibalism can manifest and the difference is vitally important to understanding the costs and benefits of the behaviour. It’s all very technical but bear with me and we can take a break if it gets a little too complicated. Basically, sexual cannibalism can occur:

  • before sex…
  • or after (slash during).

Phew, made it. The former is called ‘non-‘ or ‘pre-copulatory cannibalism’ while the latter is called ‘post-copulatory’ or just ‘copulatory cannibalism’.  Now, with post-cop cannibalism, females get to mate AND eat which raises the question of why any female would bother with pre-cop cannibalism. Furthermore, if a female eats every male that turns up without mating then she runs the risk of never getting the chance to mate before the seasons change (assume winter = death). So it’s a little hard to see why not all sexually cannibalistic species just eat the male after mating.

There a couple of potential reasons for this. Firstly, males might be in a better position to escape after mating. Secondly, mating can take a long, long time. Some mantises mate for around seven hours and female condition gets appreciably worse throughout the ordeal. Consequently, sometimes it’s a case of a meal now versus the chance of a meal later. However, the pressure to mate is high so it is expected under the Adaptive foraging hypothesis that females would be less likely to cannibalise males as time goes on and the prospect of a frosty death begins to loom.

Costs and benefits
Pros and cons of cannibalism without mating (according to the Adaptive foraging hypothesis)

Basically, there are two major primary ecological constraints which can support the development of sexual cannibalism: food availability and mate availability. If you have a small number of food species around but a surplus of potential suitors, sexual cannibalism is a valuable asset for a female. In my own work I mainly looked at the availability of food and how that influenced the frequency of sexual cannibalism. In the wild this is generally the result of major environmental changes which influence the availability of prey. In the lab it involves with-holding locusts from a lab population. Science!

Next time: I need to take a break from mantises. I’m sure an equally dignified topic will present itself.


  1. The Adaptive foraging hypothesis was formally described by Newman and Elgar in 1991 and entails five different hypotheses. Based on work with the fishing spider Dolomedes sp.

    Dolomedes dawwwww
  2. The Aggressive spillover hypothesis was generated when Arnqvist and Henriksson found that the Adaptive foraging hypothesis didn’t fit with their own experimental spider species. It suggests that the level of female aggression is determined during development and that aggressive female nymphs (young) are more likely to survive into adulthood as they’re more voracious feeders. As adults they continue to be aggressive to anything that comes near them, including males. Under this hypothesis, sexual cannibalism is maladaptive i.e. not advantageous and is merely the by-product of the survival of more aggressive young.

Oh yeah, pictures:

This is wrong
This is wrong
This is right.
This is right.