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.

USA trip 2018

After attending the ABS and ISBE meetings, I flew to Florida to spend a few weeks holiday with family and friends.

I visited my old lab in Gainesville to say hi to all of the jumping spiders and take a few out for a photoshoot. This juvenile male Phidippus regius was just inquisitive enough to be still for some great shots! Look at those stunning iridescent chelicera! pregius3

This mature male Phidippus otiosus was not nearly as cooperative for his photoshoot but we managed one shot in the end.


Of course, I needed to say hello to the outreach program’s “arthropod petting zoo” which I used to manage.

Casey snapped this cute photo of me with a Chilean rosehair tarantula that is part of the outreach exhibit. New Zealand has incredible arthropods (that’s why I moved here!) but I sure do miss having tarantulas around.


While in Gainesville,  I had to cut socializing short to photograph this amazing juvenile grizzled mantis (Gonatista grisea). Luckily, they were equally in awe with this handsome specimen. Look at that incredible camouflage against the lichen of an oak tree! 

During my trip, I also got to visit with my old friends in Sarasota. We went to the Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory where I got to hang out with a lot of pufferfish.






The third and fourth meetings I attended in 2018 were ABS, the Animal Behaviour Society, and ISBE, the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. I’m clumping these together as they were back-to-back conferences with just 5 days in between.

Before flying to the United States for these meetings, I had not returned home since moving to New Zealand at the end of 2016! It was almost two years since I’d seen my family, friends, or American dog (who lives with my parents). But time flies when you’re seeing amazing New Zealand landscape and collecting cool data, so it certainly hadn’t seemed like a whole two years away. Again, I ate my weight in fresh blueberries upon arriving in the United States. (note: fresh blueberries DO indeed exist in New Zealand but they have a short season of affordability for a grad student).

This was my first time attending either the ABS or ISBE meetings but I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of research, the breadth of research, and the conference attendees. ABS was held at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee while ISBE was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the convention center. I quite enjoyed staying in the dormitories right on the beautiful brick campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Staying in the dorms was social, affordable, and just a few steps away from the conference venue.

I brought a pin of my own to dress up my name badge with some arachnids!

In addition to presenting a 15-min talk at both conferences, and chairing a session at ISBE, I fit in some tourist activities as well! I had been to Minneapolis for the Entomological Society of NZ in 2015, but had never been to Wisconsin or Illinois at all. My colleagues and I decided to use the 5-day break between conferences to visit Chicago. We visited the Field Museum (highly recommend!), the Shedd aquarium, and the Sears Tower for sunset/nightfall.

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Tallest spiders in the city? Spiders on the inside and outside of the top floor of the Sears/Willis Tower. From the pictures, I guess we know where my interests lie that day…and every day.

I stumbled across this robber fly (Asilidae) eating a bottle fly at a bus stop on campus in Milwaukee
There was a little patch of woods right outside the dormitories where I found several diurnal harvestmen (Leibunum. sp.)

Catching up! ASSAB

I had the privilege of attending four professional meetings in 2018. Second up on the list was ASSAB, the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour, which was held in July 2018 by the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. This was such a fun meeting with a shared labmate AirBnB and midnight pancakes! My first time to Brisbane, I was really impressed at how charming this city is. There is clearly a lot of care and time put into maintaining the public spaces along the river which were an awesome resource in the mornings while my labmate and I tried to run off the morning tea pastries.

We also hit an amazing farmer’s market where I bought and quickly ate my weight in blueberries, visited the museum, and fit in some clothes shopping in the bustling strip of shops. The fairy lights strewn throughout the trees at the pedestrian bridge and the fruit bats at dusk were icing on the cake.


I delivered a 15-min talk on my work with the physiological costs of weaponry and extreme size variation in NZ harvestmen. To my surprise, I won honorable mention for best student talk at the awards dinner. My photo of a jumping spider also won the prize for best photograph in the invertebrate category. This was also my first time chairing a session at a conference. I was sure to have questions ready for each speaker in case the audience did not have a question and it went very smoothly!

67th meeting of the Entomological Society of New Zealand, Bugs in the Pub

Last week my lab group and I attended the annual conference of the Entomological Society of New Zealand. This was my second time attending this meeting and I have really enjoyed it each time. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I had only attended entomology meetings in the United States which are very large conferences (with ICE in Orlando bringing in over 6000 entomologists). I find that the smaller meetings here in Australasia are much more intimate and make it easier to network. Kiwis also believe in the importance of morning and afternoon tea, which not only provides lots of yummy pastries but also breaks up the day and provides plenty of time to interact. I delivered a talk about some preliminary data on the morphometrics and metabolism of my focal species, Forsteropsalis pureora, as part of the Behaviour and Evolution symposium.

A slide from my presentation at the conference
The Holwell lab group

As a former outreach and education coordinator in Florida, I have been eager to put together an outreach event here in New Zealand. However, I have generally lacked the time, energy, and resources to make this happen on top of my PhD research and responsibilities. This conference provided the perfect opportunity as I would have support from colleagues (who are all in one place for once!) and support from the society. A popular idea that has particularly taken off in the United States and Europe is pub science, where scientists mingle with the general public while enjoying a pint. This idea had slowly made it to the larger cities in New Zealand such as Auckland, but I wanted to try it out in our smaller conference venue city, Whanganui.


We decided to put on “Bugs in the Pub” where three entomologists delivered ten-minute talks, answered questions, and then all of the entomologists in attendance mingled with the general public. I wanted to cover a broad scope of entomological topics to disseminate an appreciation for arthropods, highlighting evolution, diversity, and their benefits to humans. I first delivered a talk on insect weaponry and sexual selection. We then had a talk on beetle diversity and finally a talk on entomophagy and the use of insect protein as a livestock feed. Additionally, we brought in some live native insects for the public to view and handle, including praying mantids, walking sticks, and a few spiders. The event seemed well received overall and I look forward to continuing on with more events like this in the future. I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Rich Leschen and my friend and labmate Neil Birrell who truly made the event possible with all of their help with conception, design, and execution. Also a big thanks to Frank. Bar + Eatery in Whanganui who not only graciously hosted our event but also expertly catered the entire conference.

Delivering my pub talk on insect/arthropod weaponry driven by sexual selection

Fieldwork, network

What better place to network with and get to know fellow field biologists than in the field itself? As important as conferences and professional meetings are for networking, it’s my experience that getting right out into the field with someone is exceedingly valuable. Considerable knowledge is shared and relationships built by trudging through the bush into the late hours of the night.

I had the pleasure of meeting behavioural ecologist Darryl Gwynne and his wife Sarah on a recent field trip to Waitomo. Darryl is a faculty member at the University of Toronto working on sexual selection, specifically mating behaviours in systems such as weta, crickets, and dance flies. He has a particular interest in nuptial gifts (typically defined as nutritious resources produced or gathered by males and given to females) and other reproductive investment.

Darryl and Sarah were in search of a species of ground weta and met up with me in Waitomo to see if my field sites for harvestmen could be suitable sites for their species as well. It was a bit late in the season for the ground weta, but hopefully they’ve identified some promising sites for next year’s trip. I was also sure to take them to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge after dark to view the phenomenal glowworm display.  It’s a must-do for anyone visiting the area.


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Yet to be identified longhorn beetle (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae). Such a handsome beetle!

Though the ever-unpredictable harvestmen season seemed to be waning, I was able to gather a bit of data adding to the projects I was working on throughout January and February. This time, I also lugged my macro setup with me into the bush to photograph some of the wonderful and diverse arthropods we encountered. The photos throughout this post were taken during this early April trip. Click on each photo for more information.

A summer update

Time flies when you’re having fun! This summer has been pleasantly productive thus far, and it isn’t over yet. After 5 weeks in rural New Zealand, I am back in the city running through some laboratory protocols unable to be completed in the field. With some luck, I will be back in the field by April to gather even more data. The field season of our harvestmen can be quite unpredictable, largely driven by the weather. In years of drought, the season may conclude by February, but in wetter years such as this one, adults may be found into May.

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My awesome summer students, Caitlin, Liz, Nik, and myself. Plus Wally, who is an excellent field assistant in his own right,  but not very good with calipers.

Most people can think back to a night during undergraduate study where they pulled an “all-nighter”. Modifying one’s daily schedule to coordinate with the nocturnal nature of the study species is something that many field biologists grapple with. Beginning your work day as the sun sets can be a bit jarring at first, but soon you fall into the new programme: harvestmen by night, sleep by day. And if you’re up to it, you can squeeze in an adventure in the afternoons just for fun.

We did several day hikes around our main field site, a private farm and native forest  indefinitely protected by a trust (check out the photos above and below). We also explored Marakopa Falls, Marakopa beach, Mangapohue natural bridge, Ruakuri natural bridge and track, Piripiri caves, and even went black water rafting in the infamous Aranui cave. Waitomo has a limestone kaarst landscape, which means that in addition to the beautiful native forest on the surface, there are countless cave systems to explore below. Further, you see many limestone boulders at ground level, which makes this area very attractive to climbers and boulderers. We often share our field hut with spelunkers (people who go into caves for fun) on the weekends and I’ve learned so much about what drives people to enjoy this unique hobby. It turns out that many spelunkers are interested in mapping out new systems and passages on their adventures, not to mention the thrill of squeezing yourself through dark, tight spaces. I am personally most interested by the invertebrate life within the cave systems.

It is the world-famous glowworms that often bring tourists into the caves for the first time. Glowworms, Arachnocampa luminosa, are the larval stage of keroplatid fungus gnats. These bioluminescent insects are not only found in caves, but also occur in the right forest habitat. Pupae and females also glow, but the larvae are most noticeable with their long strands of silk coated with sticky mucus droplets to capture prey.  In fact, the cave guides we met were quite knowledgeable about glowworms, but most failed to know what harvestmen were. When harvestmen do come up, they are only known as an occasional predator of the glowworms. Perhaps a short course in Waitomo invertebrate fauna is in order for the tour guides!

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The endemic black cockroach hunter (Tachysphex nigerrimus) with Celatoblatta sp. cockroach prey


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A lovely male Soerensenella sp. covered in (likely phoretic) mites. These are short-legged harvestmen, in a different suborder than the long-legged harvestmen I work on.
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Male Lasiorynchus barbicornis, the giraffe weevil. These endemic beetles are found over most of New Zealand. My cosupervisor Chrissie Painting’s PhD work was on this fascinating system (
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Time for a close-up! A giraffe weevil male at 5xs magnification.
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Kanuka longhorn beetle, Ochrocydus huttoni. These guys often get confused and end up flying in to the spotlights on the farm house.

Be sure to tune in soon for more information on the experiments we’ve been conducting this summer as I process and analyze the data.

I am excited to have a full line-up of conferences this year including the Entomological Society of New Zealand in April in Whanganui, the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) in July in Brisbane, Animal Behavior Society (ABS) in August in Milwaukee, and the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE) in August in Minneapolis. Please get in touch if you’re interested in meeting up at any of the listed meetings.