Something Something Science: Developing my Spidey Sense

“You just end up with a sixth sense for where your species will be.”, said my supervisor nearly three years ago. As with most things, Chrissie ended up being right about this (and I’m not just saying that because her website hosts this blog)! My PhD work has had me travelling up and down the country hunting for two spider species.

In some cases, this meant arriving in a remote part of the South Island, with only 7 days to collect hundreds of spiders from sites I had never been to before! The first time I tried this, I struggled. I wandered up and down field sites with no idea what I was looking for. Hours upon hours of my precious time wasted in places with the same number of spiders you’d find on the surface of the Moon! However, three years on, having learnt the hard way, I have developed that sixth sense that Chrissie spoke of, my Spidey Sense, if you will.

Looking at a site, I can tell you whether you will find my target species there. The terrain, elevation, the structure of the plant species, these all provide useful information. However, it’s all in a way that is difficult to describe. For example, I can tell you that Dolomedes minor likes shrubby habitats, and that Dolomedes aquaticus likes rocky rivers. I can also tell you that aquaticus needs rivers with a little elevation and plant life to them, so they don’t all get washed away in the first bit of rain. But there’s also a certain ineffable quality. Something unquantifiable that exists in a good site. Something that reaches out into the subconcious part of my brain and whispers “there are spiders here.” In the same way that Spiderman knows that danger is nearby but can’t tell you what, I can tell you that spiders are nearby…but can’t tell you why.

Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ

This spidey sense has also completely ruined my brain! I can’t go for a walk without seeing a patch of shrubs that I know must teem with spiders. I see a picture of a riverbend, and I know the precise spot where I’d look for eight legged friends! I simply cannot turn off this knowledge. There is only so many times my friends and loved ones want their relaxing walks interrupted by the words “I reckon there’s spiders in that bush.”

And now here is the dilemma. I will not be the last to carry this (modest) burden. Even now, I am helping train an intern to find another species of spider. And after him, there will be other students and PhD candidates. If I myself am to continue in this field, I may yet have to develop my senses to look for more species. Should they be cursed…as I have been.

I mean probably, I am being quite melodramtic here… but if…with great power comes great responsibility, then perhaps with great knowledge comes great annoyance.

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