National TV in New Zealand

I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to represent the arachnologists gathered in Christchurch in an interview segment on The Project NZ. The Project is a popular nightly news panel here in NZ. Along with Mike Kasumovic from UNSW, I was interviewed by the panel during which I dispelled some common myths around arachnids and attempted to convince the audience that spiders are important biological control agents, an important aspect of a healthy ecosystem, and should be regarded rather than feared. This clip is available in New Zealand but not for overseas viewers.

So here’s a silly screencap instead! I believe the mark that looks like a sharpie pen was actually the editors drawing “webs” and spiders across the screen.

I also interviewed with TV1 whilst out on the mid-week congress excursion and appeared in a short segment.

The Project interview was my first formal appearance on television and it was an awesome experience. Having Mike Kasumovic there as my “co-star” especially helped to lessen the anxiety and make it fun! It felt like a meaningful way to reach many people that might not otherwise interact with spider biologists. Turning fear and disgust into curiosity are important not only to change minds about important, yet less-charismatic taxa (such as spiders), but also for the public to think twice about broader issues facing our natural world.

International Congress of Arachnology 2019

I’ve been to several conferences now, but never have I been anywhere that I did not have to justify, sell, or explain arachnids as a model system. It was surreal being surrounded by other eight-legged enthusiasts. The community among arachnologists was clearly tightly-knit yet so welcoming. I was impressed at the continuity, with many members making every effort to attend each international meeting, rekindling connections decade after decade and making new ones. I was sold, I certainly intend on making it to the next arachnology meeting! The mid-week excursion took place at Hinewai Reserve on the Banks Peninsula. I was particularly surprised at the amount of Diaea sp. crab spiders I came across. It was a touch dry, but I still managed to find two harvestmen by flipping rocks around the small waterfall and stream during the daytime.

Left: A teeny male Diaea sp. crab spider collected in a sweep net. Right: A Diaea sp. crab spider that I captured mid-molt. It appears that the spider has a “second head” when in fact, it is the shed exoskeleton carapace still attached to the abdomen. You can also see the “dragline” or safety line of silk that the spider hangs from as it completes the delicate molting process.

 

The drive between Christchurch and Hinewai Reserve was especially scenic.

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In my natural habitat hunting for and photographing arthropods!

 

Entomological Society of New Zealand 2019

More conferences! I have been so lucky during my PhD to have the funding and opportunity to build professional relationships and communicate my research via domestic and international meetings. To start off 2019, I attended both the Entomological Society of New Zealand (ESNZ) meeting in Hanmer Springs and the International Congress of Arachnology (ICA) in Christchurch.

At ESNZ, I won 1st prize for best student talk! Here I am with my main supervisor, Greg Holwell.

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Morgane and I both rocked our finest entomologically-themed attire. I’ve got a beetle dress, mushroom earrings, and a jumping spider tattoo. Morgane has a dragonfly dress and a sphinx moth necklace.

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Group photos! Left is Greg Holwell’s lab group and right is Chrissie Painting’s lab group.

 

Hanmer Springs Resort was a wonderful conference venue. Amazing views and lovely cottages.

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2018-2019 Summer in Waitomo

Most of my field work for my personal project has been conducted in Waitomo, New Zealand. I’ve talked about Waitomo before in previous blog posts. It’s an incredible place and I am always thrilled to act as tour guide to introduce visitors (or even kiwis who have never ventured there) to the magic that is karst landscape, glowworm covered walls, diverse harvestmen, and a variety of other endemic invertebrates (such as velvet worms and sheetweb spiders). I took several trips to Waitomo this summer from Dec 2018 to March 2019.

The first two weeks of January, I hosted an Irish undergraduate student who came over for summer research experience, my undergraduate summer student from University of Auckland, and a MSc student working on giraffe weevils at my field site. We added to the sample size of autotomy experiments for one of my data chapters, tried some last ditch efforts to stimulate more natural male-male competition between the harvestmen, and the summer students also got to help with the giraffe weevil project (which included a lot of patience for behavioral observations and the use of a fancy thermal camera).

In February, I also hosted a professional photographer in Waitomo, took a visiting collaborator down for a quick field trip, and guided our new post-doc in the lab around the field site.

Can a sheep farm be any more picturesque?

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The closest beach to Waitomo is Marokopa beach. It hosts beautiful, glittery black sand, a rough surf, and seemingly good fishing. The beach is one of my dog’s favorite things about field work, though he is also a huge fan of caves, streams, and forest tracks.

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Here’s an assortment of some of the amazing things I’ve photographed in Waitomo this summer!

“Icing sugar” fungus on a sheet-web spider

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Female and male Uliodon sp. brown vagrant spiders with prey. The female is eating a centipede (left) while the male is eating some Hemiptera I believe.

 

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Close-up of a glowworm! Not to spoil the magic, but Arachnocampa luminosa is actually the maggot of a fungus gnat, the larvae are predatory and produce bioluminescence (light) and sticky strings of silk to attract and capture prey. 

A native bush roach molting, a male tree weta (Hemideina thoracica) molting to adulthood, and a stick insect doing an excellent job of being a stick!

 

Arthropods of Stewart Island/Southland

Now for the good stuff! Sure New Zealand scenery is stunning, but we’re clearly here for the bugs.

Here’s a selection of the arthropods we found across our December 2018 Stewart Island/Southland trip.

First up, here’s an assortment of male Pantopsalis phocator. Most NZ harvestmen (well…all NZ harvestmen) have no common name. This one I’ve been affectionately calling “sunset harvestmen” because of the incredible colors that occur. The gradient of silver, orange, red, and yellows reminds me of a sunset or sunrise. These guys were found on Stewart Island as well as on the mainland in the Otago area.

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We also found a Forsteropsalis species on Stewart Island, that appears to be Forsteropsalis chiltoni (note that this family of harvestmen is currently under taxonomic revision using molecular sequencing with collaborators). This species is a stunning red color and I was impressed to find this large specimen eating an equally-large freshly-killed crane fly (Tipulidae).

To Morgane’s delight, we also found stick insects on Stewart Island. These were Acanthoxyla sp. Stick insects will sometimes regurgitate to avoid predators. This female almost looks as though she is blowing a bubble of chewing gum. Her food source must make this regurgitation a pink color as most regurgitate brown or green.

Here’s a variety of other arthropods we encountered during the day and night on Stewart Island.

Southland 2018

After departing Stewart Island, we remained on the mainland in the very south of the South Island (aptly called ‘Southland’) for a few more days of collecting different harvestmen species. I had previously collected harvestmen in the Catlins Forest and in several sites around Dunedin/Otago 2016 and 2017. We needed to boost our sample sizes for these species, so we returned to these sites again this year. We also collected kelp flies along the beaches in these areas.

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There are so many rural beach gems in New Zealand. So much of the country retains its natural beauty that there is seemingly endless farmland and forest along kilometers of cliff side beaches.

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Before our flight back to Auckland out of Dunedin, we visited the steepest residential street in the world, Baldwin Street!

 

Stewart Island 2018

After the United States trip, my next big adventure of 2018 was a field-collecting trip to Stewart Island. After the North and South islands, Stewart Island is the third largest island (by land-mass) of New Zealand. Getting to Stewart Island can be done by plane or by ferry. The locals say it’s “20 minutes of terror or an hour of Hell”. This of course refers to the means of transportation. The plane option is a small Britten-Norman islander that seats 8-10 people while apparently the ferry is quite rough. We opted to take the small plane, which I thoroughly enjoyed after an initial uncertainty. On the return flight I wanted to sit as close to the passenger seat as possible! We had breathtaking views as we departed Invercargill and headed towards Stewart Island.

The trip included myself and my labmates, Neil, Morgane, and Bex. Our main focus of the trip was to collect harvestmen for the comparative aspect of our Marsden-funded project. This aspect of the project, using 2-D and 3-D modelling via CT scanning and comparative methods to explore weapon shape evolution across the New Zealand Neopilionidae (long-legged harvestmen), is led by my supervisor Chrissie Painting. Because of maternity leave and welcoming a beautiful baby boy to her whānau, I had the privilege of leading several field trips across the country to collect the specimens needed for this part of the project across my PhD.

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We began on Stewart Island, where we collected for three nights. Stewart Island is largely undeveloped, so we were able to access the tracks and forest by foot from our hotel. During the daytime, we collected kelp flies (in the family Coelopidae) along the different bays and beaches for my labmate Bex’s PhD project. And when night finally fell (it takes until 10pm to get dark on the south island at peak summertime!) we headed out into the bush for harvestmen. We were quite excited to find what we were looking for: harvestmen and kelp flies, as well as stick insects and a variety of other spider, fly, and wasp fauna. However, eager tourists tramping through the bush at night were disappointed to hear that our headlights/torches were turned onto mere arthropods rather than a prized kiwi. We did hear kiwi calling and it would have been a pleasure to see one, but we did not. We did however see heaps of kaka (a large, red-grey parrot), kererū (wood pigeons), tui, and some red-crowned kākāriki (parakeet). The island is largely predator-free with extensive pest control, which allows these birds to thrive off of the mainland. Native flax was in bloom, which attracted the tui and kaka, sparking competition between the two species. Surprisingly, the tui dominated over the larger kaka.