What happens when you ask an undergrad to draw a spider?*

This summer the arthropodologists in my department are being moved from one building to another, as part of the mysterious game of reshuffling that university administrators so enjoy. As preparation for the move, I’m downsizing the contents of my filing cabinets. In a folder from 2004 I found this collection of drawings from the first time I taught Biology 108, Introduction to Biological Diversity. I had given two lectures on arthropods with a strong emphasis on differences in appendages and tagmata among the major groups. This is what I thought was an easy bonus question on the final exam: draw a spider and label the relevant parts. Here is a selection of drawings, from ‘quite respectable’ to ‘huh?’.



Based on the last image, some university students believe that spiders should be speared on toothpicks and served in martinis.

*apologies to Facebook friends who’ve already seen a version of this.

A(i)nt and gast(e)ropost

While at the Los Tuxtlas field station I had the opportunity to be attacked by numerous arthropods, including trombiculid mites (chiggers), numerous species of ants, and an urticating caterpillar. Don’t laugh about the caterpillar!  They can kill you. But the one that got me only left a caterpillar-shaped welt on my shoulder. I’ll describe two ant attacks of note. One involved an invasion of sleeping quarters by male and female ants after a hot day and heavy rainstorm induced a flight of reproductives. The bedroom walls and ceiling were covered in winged ants, which proceeded to fall down on the bed at night. One added both injury and insult by biting my bottom.

winged ant queen like the one that bit me in bed Los Tuxtlas 18 July 2014 sml

One of many reproductive female ants that swarmed the bedroom in Los Tuxtlas. Unfortunately, I don’t know the genus.

The next morning I took some photos of the remaining reproductives, which revealed that the males have grotesquely enlarged and protuberant ocelli.  A cursory Googling revealed that ocelli tend to be larger in reproductives of night-flying ant species, but I couldn’t find a good explanation for the sexual difference. This paper suggests that males of Myrmecia (a genus different from the that of the ants that fell on me) may have to engage in more intense visual tracking to find the females for mating.

ocelli of female vs male reproductive ants Los Tuxtlas 18 July 2014 sml

Heads of female (left) and male (right) reproductive ants showing the difference between the sexes in relative size and sphericality of the three ocelli.

The second ant attack occurred when I was peaceably watching a lecture on salticid taxonomy in the lab. Suddenly I felt a burning pain on my throat. Remnants of the crushed body of the perpetrator revealed that it was a Pseudomyrmex, probably P. salvini.  This ant was many times larger than the other species of Pseudomyrmex that had attacked my hand near Chamela, and it produced a goiter-like swelling commensurate with its size. I don’t know what induced it to stab me in the neck – sheer viciousness, perhaps. But on the bright side, the nasty nature of the Pseudomyrmex is probably why a particularly striking species of jumping spider mimics it. The a(i)nt pictured below with its model is a species of Synemosyna. They were common on the station walls and foliage.

Pseudomyrmex most likely salvini and Synemosyna mimic Los Tuxtlas 14 July 2014

Pseudomyrmex ant on left and a mimicking Synemosyna salticid on the right.

 So there is the gasteropost – on to the gastropost.  In Morelia we had much enjoyable food and drink, including a surprisingly good Mexican IPA, but there was also some awful stuff. One meal resulted in a three day trial of having my Edmontonian gut flora violently replaced with a Morelian community. After that had settled down, I decided I was digestively robust enough to sample a mysterious drink called a ‘Michelada’, which was advertised everywhere, but I had no idea what it might be. When the beverage arrived, this is what it turned out to be:

Michelada trimmed

Creating the Michelada – beer plus Clamato juice. Urgh. (photo by Wayne Maddison)

I managed to drink about a fifth of the concoction before the guts said ‘no’! Tastebuds concurred. But as odd as this beer+Clamato sounds, there is an equivalent in Alberta: the Red Eye. Why someone decided to replace the vodka in a Caesar with beer is unclear to me.

A more pleasant food experience took place in Mexico City after I had given my talk at UNAM. My host, Dr. Tila Pérez, took me and some other arachnologists to a traditional restaurant for lunch. There in addition to delicious moles (poblano, negro, verde and rojo), we sampled some unusual appetizers. My favourite was escamoles – fried ant juveniles (maybe a mixture of larvae and pupae) served with guacamole and eaten with tortillas. They tasted like buttery fried things, and I enjoyed them maliciously.

escamoles - fried ant pupae raised on agave roots Mexico City 28 July 2014

Fried baby ants – delicious revenge! (photo by Grislda Montiel)

Arachnids at Los Tuxtlas


students collecting Los Tuxtlas 14 July 2014 B sml

Students collecting around the field station.

I spent an enjoyable week of this July at the UNAM Los Tuxtlas field station in Vera Cruz, Mexico, sitting in on a field course and taking a macrophotography holiday. The course was on the taxonomy and biology of Salticidae jumping spiders, and was run by Wayne Maddison from the University of British Columbia (Canada) and Gustavo Ruiz from the Universidade Federal do Pará (Brazil).


Seventeen undergraduate and graduate students from Mexico, Central America, and South America were eager vessels for the instructors’ salticidological wisdom.

classroom Los Tuxtlas 16 July 2014

Classroom at Los Tuxtlas.

Jumping spiders were abundant and conspicuous at Los Tuxtlas.  Quite a contrast from the situation in Alberta, where hunting salticids requires a vast amount of patience and belief in divine intervention. Here is a small selection of the beautiful jumping spiders we saw.

big male Freya regia on leaf Los Tuxtlas 14 July 2014 sml

Despite being named for the Norse goddess of love, this Freya is all man.

Corythalia on wall Los Tuxtlas 16 July 2014 sml

One of about a dozen species of Corythalia from Los Tuxtlas.

Lyssomanes male Los Tuxtlas 17 July 2014 sml

Male Lyssomanes maddisoni court via semaphore.

There was a great diversity of other families of spiders at Los Tuxtlas. Large wandering spiders of the genus Cupiennius (Ctenidae) were everywhere. Less common, but a great treat for me as I hadn’t seen them since I lived in Australia more than a decade ago, were two-tailed spiders (Hersiliidae). Neither is as flashy as most salticids, but they have a subtle beauty of their own.

ctenid Cupiennius on wall UNAM Los Tuxtlas 14 July 2014 trimmed sml

Cupiennius on retaining wall.

two-tailed spider Hersiliidae Los Tuxtlas 17 July 2014 sml

Two-tailed spider (Hersiliidae)

In addition to Araneae, I saw many other orders/superorders of arachnids at the field station including Acariformes, Opiliones, Palpigradi, Parasitiformes, Pseudoscorpiones, Ricinuleida, Schizomida and Scorpiones. The only terrestrial ones I didn’t see were Solfugida, Amblypygi and Uropygi, though the latter two were no doubt there. I was particularly excited to photograph live ricinuleids. At one point they were thought to be the sister group to mites because they shared with the Acari a 6-legged larval stage, among other things. Molecules say otherwise, though, both with regard to the relationship between mites and ricinuleids and the monophyly of mites themselves. Unfortunately, the post-larval ricinuleid got tangled up in residual spider webbing from the vial it was held in, and was too hobbled to walk naturally.

trombidioid Los Tuxtlas 15 July 2014passalid venter with mites Los Tuxtlas 15 July 2014 sml

gonyleptid sl opilionid Los Tuxtlas 14 July 2014scorpion prob Chactidae 16 July 2014 sml

ricinuleid larva and HPs pinkie finger Los Tuxtlas 16 July 2014 smlricinuleid adult unfortunately webbed up Los Tuxtlas 16 July 2014 A

Non-spider arachnids, starting at top left: acariform mite, parasitiform and possibly also acariform mites on the venter of a passalid beetle, opilionid, scorpion, 6-legged larval ricinuleid and my pinkie finger, post-larval ricinuleid.

The Accidental Taxonomist

Accidental Taxonomist title image sml

Dr. Thelma Finlayson, an emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University, will soon be celebrating her 100th birthday. In honour of this event, a half-day symposium was held at FSU a couple of weeks ago. The themes reflected Finlayson’s own research: insect biocontrol and taxonomy. I had been asked by the coordinator of the event, Dr. Elizabeth Elle, to give the final lecture in the symposium with a focus on biodiversity and systematics.  An honour, but also daunting! According to Elle, Finlayson became a parasitoid taxonomist by necessity rather than by original intent. Her main interest was biocontrol but in order to do that she had to become an expert in the taxonomy of tiny wasps. That story made me reflect on my own path to becoming a mite taxonomist.  I, too, had followed an accidental route, with my original interests being ecology and behaviour. Then I wondered how many of my colleagues were also Accidental Taxonomists.

About a month before the symposium I sent a request to three arthropod oriented listservs with different audiences: mite biologists, arachnologists working on taxa other than mites, and parasitoid hymenopterists.  This is the content of that request:

Dear XXX people: I will be giving a presentation on taxonomy at Simon Fraser University at the end of March, and as part of my seminar I would like to discuss how people end up being taxonomists.  In some cases, becoming an expert on the taxonomy of a group may have been a deliberate choice, e.g., as your M.Sc. project you may have chosen to revise a particular genus of XXX.  But in other cases one may have planned to do a project on behaviour or ecology, and discovered that you couldn’t complete the project without first learning the taxonomy of the group.   So, I would greatly appreciate hearing from those of you who have become local (or international!) experts in taxonomy of particular groups of XXX.  Here are my two questions: (1) for what xxx group(s) have you become a taxonomic expert? By ‘expert’, I mean expert at identification, not necessarily someone who also describes new taxa. (2) how did you happen to become an expert? Was that your first choice, or had you originally planned to work on some other aspect of that group’s biology? Many thanks! Heather Here are the results that I presented to a wonderful audience of Finlayson fans on 25 March. (1) Geographical distribution of respondents: 64 people from 23 countries, top five being U.S.A., United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands (see map below). map of Accidental Taxonomist replies (2) Here are the taxonomic orientations of those respondents:Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon   (3) Out of curiosity, I checked the sex-ratio of the respondents. Strongly male-biased – but note the caveat (which is relevant to ALL of the responses, not just this one).Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by taxon and sex (4) And then the main question: how many respondents became taxonomists deliberately, as their first choice, or by accident or necessity? A few people didn’t answer this question directly, so I made an educated guess based on the stories associated with their responses. The answer is that about half of them were Accidental Taxonomists. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental (5) My gut feeling after reading the responses was that non-mite arachnologists were much more likely to have chosen taxonomy as a career than were acarologists.  Araneologists seem to be born rather than made.  My guts were correct! One could also hypothesize, conversely, that mite biologists tend to be forced into taxonomy out of necessity, given the vast unknown that is acarine biodiversity. Accidental Taxonomist - replies broken down by deliberate or accidental and by taxon Although some taxonomists responded in a brief and businesslike manner, others provided long and delightful (or sometimes sad) stories of how their scientific careers had evolved.  After the symposium, a few people asked me whether I planned to publish the results.  Nope – can’t.  Didn’t have Human Ethics clearance to do this survey. It is totally illegal, contraband data.  Plus, the survey was not at all scientifically designed. So please take these results cum grano salis.


A few days ago we made it safely back to Canada after a month of collecting arachnids in Mexico.  While there we couldn’t resist picking up a few other souvenirs in addition to salticids and opilioacarids. One was a bottle of raicilla from the beautiful 400 year old town of San Sebastian del Oeste. Like tequila, raicilla is a distilled liquor made from agave, albeit from a different species in the same genus. The name may mean ‘little root’ but we’re guessing. Selling of raicilla has only recently been legalized according to this site.

raicilla and opilioacarids safe in Vancouver 6 March 2014

Raicilla and opilioacarids safe in Vancouver.

Therefore, I was legitimately able to bring in a bottle as a souvenir, along with my likewise legal container of opilioacarid mites (see permit above!). Unfortunately, the raicilla leaked a bit in my luggage, imbuing my trousers with a smoky flavour.

I also brought back some unintended mementos: clusters of itchy, supporating sores on my ankles resulting from bites of larval mites of the family Trombiculidae (Acari: Parasitengona). Trombiculids are known as chiggers in North America and scrub itch mites in Australia. As larvae, chiggers are parasites of vertebrates while as nymphs and adults they are free-living predators.  Despite common belief, chiggers do not burrow under your skin. Rather, those that bite humans usually attach only briefly and then drop off, leaving behind an itchy wad of spit that continues to cause irritation long after the wee mites are gone.

HPs right ankle with chigger bites 6 March 2014 compilation

My right ankle with chigger bites.

Losing blood in Mexico

We experienced many forms of personal exsanguination while in Mexico. Biting flies were diverse (Ceratopodinidae, Culicidae and even Simuliidae) though nowhere near as abundant as in Canada and only occasionally maddening. Ticks, on the other hand, were present in numbers that to me, as a resident of a province where human-biting ticks are relatively uncommon, were disconcerting. Tick-checks after fieldwork were a daily task, and Wayne and I competed for the honour of “most infested”.  On our second last field day at Rancho Primavera, I won with a whopping N = 42 ixodids.  We hope that none of the ticks we pulled from our integument were carrying noxious bacteria or viruses.

tick on beating sheet Rancho Primavera 3 March 2014

Tick on beating sheet.

tick embedded in Wayne Chamela field station 11 Feb 2014 A

Tick attached to Wayne.

But ticks and flies are lightweights in comparison to the champion bloodsuckers of Mexico – vampire bats.  We slept safely inside at night at so never got bitten; however, livestock aren’t so lucky. Bonnie Jáuregui, proprietor of Rancho Primavera, showed us fresh wounds on her horses that had been caused by feeding vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus).

vampire bat wound on horse Rancho Primavera 2 March 2014 sml

Vampire bat wound on horse’s neck.

She treated them by smearing a warfarin-containing cream on the wounds. When bats returned to feed on open wounds the next evening they would also ingest some warfarin. Then, because vampire bats frequently share their blood meals with roost-mates via regurgitation, the anti-clotting agent would not only affect the bat that fed on the wound directly but also its friends and relatives.

warfarin cream to kill vampire bats Rancho Primavera 2 March 2014 sml B

Warfarin, yes, garlic and wooden stakes, no.

Adios Mexico!

We had our last collecting excursion this morning on the campus of the Centro Universitario de la Costa in Puerto Vallarta, where we gathered a good number of male and female Habronattus aztecanus from the lawn next to an outdoor basketball court.  Tonight we’re flying back to Vancouver with many vials of opilioacarids and jumping spiders. Mexico has been kind to us – hasta luego, y gracias por todo los arácnidos!

Habronattus aztecanus male from CUC saying hola and adios to Mexico 5 March 2014

Daddy-longlegs-like mites

Anystis offered a challenging etymological quest (see previous post) but sometimes a spade is just called a spade. I came to the UNAM Chamela field station in Jalisco, Mexico, to hunt for a mite whose lifestyle is mysterious but whose name is straightforward. Mites of the suborder Opilioacarida were once thought to be the most ancient lineage of Acari because they bear remnants of abdominal segmentation and have a strange combination of morphological features of the two main groups mites, the Parasitiformes and the Acariformes, suggesting that opilioacarids may have arisen prior to the split between these two lineages.  However, molecular data don’t support this story, as they place Opilioacarida firmly in the Parasitiformes, and the Acariformes way the heck far off in another part of the arachnid phylogeny (i.e., mites appear to be diphyletic).

Nevertheless, opilioacarids remain very odd parasitiforms, with their big eyes, soft bodies, and gut contents that include particles (most other parasitiforms are blind, crunchy, fluid-feeders).  Their semi-segmented opisthosomas and long gangly legs make them look like a cross between a daddy-longlegs (Opiliones) and mites, hence their name. We don’t know how they catch their food or how they have sex.  My mission in coming to Chamela is to collect live opilioacarids and watch them eat and (fingers crossed) transfer sperm.  But after a week here, I hadn’t even managed to extract a single specimen from the soil, litter, wood and bark that I’ve been putting through my Tullgren funnels.  Until today – I extracted three lovely Neocarus from an unprepossessing habitat consisting of dry soil, scattered small rocks, and crispy leaf litter.  Unfortunately, these three are dead, having fallen into the ethanol at the bottom of the funnels, and hence will not be useful subjects for behavioural observations.  But at least I now know they’re here.

first opilioacarid and habitat nr Jose Maria Morelos 13 Feb 2014

First opilioacarid and habitat nr Jose Maria Morelos

Why ‘Anystis’?

The name for this blog came to me while driving with Wayne Maddison from Puerto Vallarta to the UNAM field station in Chamela, Mexico. We were discussing the pros and cons of social media, and Wayne convinced me that I should try my hand at blogging.  But what to call this maiden attempt? I had been impressed by the interest-piquing obscurity of The Subulate Palpomere as a title and decided to try to emulate it with an acarine rather than coleopteran theme.  Thus arose The Inquisitive Anystid.  And simultaneously, the urge to find out the origin of the name Anystis, which is the type genus for the family Anystidae.  I enlisted the aid of several fellow mite biologists, and within about 24 hours of competitive name-hunting, Dave Walter came up with the strongest hypothesis for what the author of Anystis was thinking about when he named the genus.  You can read about it here on Dave’s Macromite blog.

anystid from La Bufa 7 Feb 2014