Simon’s recent adventures in Europe – a travel story!

Blog by PhD candidate Simon Connolly

People often ask me why I study spiders. Almost as often, they ask me why I study spider sex. These are fair enough questions, these things are strange and often absurd to the casual observer. My answers to these questions vary, though now I suppose I can answer them with “To see the world!”, as that’s exactly what I just did.

I recently traveled to Europe to present my research at the 33rd European Congress of Arachnology. My travels took me from the Bundestag in Berlin, to the nightlife of Helsinki, and along the way, I found a few reminders of why I study spiders.

Enjoying the sites of Greifswald

This year, the Congress was held in Greifswald, Germany. My travel involved 3 flights, a three hour train ride, and catching a taxi in the dead of night…with my very poor German language skills. Along the way, I was acutely aware of the microscopic elephant in the room, but I managed to avoid a COVID-19 infection through my caution…and sheer good luck.

Greifswald is simultaneously a sleepy German town…and a centre for cutting edge spider research in Europe. It was here that I met with experts from all over the world, all of whom share my passion for the weird and wonderful ways of arachnids. I had the pleasure of benefitting from their expertise…and the somewhat nerve-wracking experience of them benefitting from mine! Over the course of the conference, I heard about: the venom potency of different spider taxa, a mysterious scorpion that lives only in ant nests, the finer aspects of a male spider’s courtship drumbeat, and the use of liquid nitrogen to capture copulating spiders! All great reminders of why spiders and arachnids are so fascinating to study.

I also spent time learning micro-CT segmentation techniques from Peter Michalik and Dante Poy. These techniques will serve me well in my PhD going forward, and in the rest of my scientific career.

Evidence that Simon didn’t just look at pretty buildings & eat strange snacks

Both the congress and learning these techniques were mentally invigorating experiences. To speak with experts in my field, whose work I have cited and read more times than I can count, and seeing their passion for their work, is a reminder of why I study spiders. Spiders are cool, and the humans that study spiders are some of coolest people in the world.

A 3D reconstruction of a spider palp with the embolus highlighted in green

Alone, and with these cool people I explored the tiny town of Greifswald, and its surrounds. I learnt about the Baltic and the DDR; ate Gherkin flavoured Haribo, and other local delicacies; and absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of another culture (to put it in a horribly cliched way).

After my work in Europe was done, I had some time for some personal travel. I used the opportunity to visit a friend of mine in Finland. Here is where I found another reminder of why I study spiders…in the most curious of places.

In amongst the bustling streets of Helsinki, you will find Luonnontieteellinen museo (The Finnish Museum of Natural History). If you ascend the stone staircase to the top, you will find a small, unassuming glass case. Inside this glass case is a taxidermied specimen of a newborn calf. Viewed from the side, as you approach it, this specimen in unremarkable. As you move to the front however, you can see that this calf had two separate and functional heads.

I think this calf means different things to different people. To some it is a mere curiosity, something to glance at on the way to a more important exhibit. To others, it is a broken and twisted creature. To me though, it is a reminder of not only the value and transience of life, but of our responsibility to that life as both scientists and human beings. And that there is beauty in the strange, the absurd and the unique…just like the weirdness of spiders. I think poet Laura Gilpin agrees with me…

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