Love spiders? We are looking for a PhD student to join the lab!

Chrissie is looking for a keen PhD student to join her recently Marsden funded project looking at applying complex systems to understanding mating system evolution. This project will involve lots of lab and field work on Dolomedes fishing spiders, as well as using network science and phylogenetic comparative methods to figure out evolutionary pathways to monogyny and other mating systems.

Head on over to the Opportunities page to find out more & please circulate widely!

Applications close 28th February for an ideal start date of 1st June 2023.

Simon wins a lifetime worth of best talk awards in one week!

Congratulations to PhD student Simon Connolly who won not one, not two, but THREE best oral presentation awards last week! Along with Ashton McDonald and Erin Steed, Simon represented the Painting lab at the Te Aka Mātuatua School of Science Postgraduate Conference. He won both the Best Presentation of Ecological Science and Best Overall Presentation.

Simon, Erin and Chrissie then attended and presented at the 70th New Zealand Entomological Society Conference in Rotorua the following day. Chrissie forgot to take many photos, but we all had a great time connecting with new and old friends, and learning about all the great entomological research happening around the motu. The dinner at Te Puia with a tour of the geysers at night was a highlight!

Pōhutu geyser

At the close of the meeting Simon once again cleaned up by winning the Best student oral presentation at the conference. Well done Simon!

Inviting contributions to a special issue on animal behaviour

Kristal Cain (University of Auckland), Stephanie Godfrey (University of Otago) and myself are guest editing an upcoming special issue on animal behaviour in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology. If you’re interested in contributing please get in touch with us. Details from the Royal Society webpage pasted below and you can visit here for more information.

This special issue of the New Zealand Journal of Zoology invites submissions with a focus on the remarkable diversity of animal behaviour in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australasia more broadly.

Behaviour is one of the most fascinating aspects of biology, shaped by interactions between morphology, physiology, cognition, and ecology. Variation in behaviour can have profound consequences for survival and reproduction. Consequently, behaviour is a lynchpin for whether or not animals adapt to the rapidly changing planet and understanding behaviour is central to predicting how populations and ecosystems have and will change. Aotearoa New Zealand and Australasia have some incredibly unique and understudied animals, and this region also plays host to a number of recent arrivals that have adjusted their behaviour to live here. This issue is open to research on them all.

We invite submissions that address the vast variety of animal behaviour research in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the rest of Oceania, the Pacific Basin, South America and Antarctica. This special issue takes a broad view of animal behaviour encompassing empirical, theoretical and comparative approaches. We welcome submissions on the role of ecology and evolutionary history in explaining the occurrence, diversity and adaptive significance of behaviours, and the use of comparative approaches to explore the evolutionary and ecological drivers of behavioural diversity. Submissions concerning the place of animal behaviour in te ao Māori (Māori worldview) or other indigenous perspectives are strongly encouraged. Topics might include, but are not limited to: social and mating behaviour, foraging and predator/prey interactions, reproductive and parental behaviour, dispersal and migration.

Submission information

Please email a preliminary title, list of potential authors and a short descriptive paragraph outlining the scope of your proposed manuscript by 11 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2022 to the guest editors Dr Kristal Cain (Auckland; k.cain@auckland.ac.nz), Dr Christina Painting (Waikato; chrissie.painting@waikato.ac.nz) and Dr Stephanie Godfrey (Otago; stephanie.godfrey@otago.ac.nz). The guest editors will make a decision on which manuscripts to invite for the special issue and authors will be notified by 25 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2022.

Note that an invitation to submit does not guarantee acceptance for publication, which will depend on the outcome of the usual peer-review process and authors meeting critical time schedules.

The anticipated manuscript submission deadline is 28 Hui-tanguru February 2023, with the aim of getting the special issue formally published by late 2023. Individual articles will be published online with a DOI before appearing in the compiled special issue.

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…

MSc student Erin Steed presents her research at the New Zealand Bee Research Symposium

I (Erin) had the privilege of attending the New Zealand Bee Research Symposium and Apiculture New Zealand (APINZ) conference in Christchurch earlier this year. The Bee Research Symposium allows scientists and students from across the country to get together and share their research, giving their insight into where we are headed in the world of beekeeping, honey, mite management, and pollination. The research symposium, along with APINZ conference, create a space for science and industry to mix, ideas to be shared, and for all things honey bees to be celebrated!

I had the opportunity to present my work on the role of drone honey bees in varroa mite dispersal. This included varroa preference for different honey bee castes, and the correlation between varroa captured on drones at drone congregation areas and varroa captured from bees in a colony. Presenting my research in front of other scientists was a great experience, and I got some helpful feedback and comments.

Hearing about the work that other researchers are working on was really exciting too. A particular highlight was hearing from Dr Sammy Ramsey about his fascinating work on the varroa mite and the tropilaelaps mite. Getting to hear from and interact with other people with a passion for honey bees and science was really inspiring, and I feel very lucky to be working in such an exciting field alongside other enthusiastic scientists. 

Erin Steed is a MSc student at the University of Waikato working on the role of drone honey bees in varroa mite dispersal. She’s supervised by Chrissie Painting & Ashley Mortensen (Plant & Food Research).

Erin Steed (bottom left) at the APINZ conference with other bee researchers from Plant & Food Research New Zealand

Simon gives an update on his research for NZ Entomological Society

After winning a 21st Century Research Grant last year, PhD student Simon recently gave an update on his research in the latest newsletter for the NZ Entomological Society:

New Zealand is home to four native species of fishing spider (Dolomedes), including two sister species: D. minor and D. aquaticus which are the focus of my PhD research. There is genetic evidence to show that these two species are undergoing introgression. Introgression is the movement of genes from one species to another, caused by the backcrossing of a hybrid specimen with its parent species. In the case of these spiders, the introgression is one-way (with hybrids only produced by the mating of D. aquaticus females and D. minor males) and geographically restricted to the lower South Island, despite the species co-occurring throughout the range of D. aquaticus.

The reasons for these limitations are currently unknown, but my work is investigating several hypotheses: 1) habitat use differs in the introgression zone, facilitating encounters between the two species; 2) variation in genital morphology (specifically variation in the retrolateral tibial apophysis (RTA)) limits their sperm transfer; 3) variation in courtship behaviour limits mating; 4) timings of reproductive maturity limit mating opportunities.

The preliminary results of my experiments suggest that the two species possess different mating behaviours and systems. For example, unmated D. aquaticus females rarely attack males, whereas D. minor females often attempt to cannibalise males who try and escape during extremely brief copulations. This divergence in mating behaviours could also have an impact on the introgression, as these could limit sperm transfer between the two species.

Hence, my aims are to investigate the morphological and/or behavioural barriers that limit the geographic range of the introgression, and restrict it to one-way (i.e.: what prevents D. aquaticus males mating with D. minor females).

I am grateful to have received funding from the New Zealand Entomological Society, via the 21st Anniversary Research Grant. These funds allowed me to travel to Southland to collect specimens of D. minor and D. aquaticus from within the introgression zone. Working in these locations was a key part of my research, not to mention a highly enjoyable part of my work so far.

These specimens were brought back live to Waikato (despite some concerns from aviation security), where they were used in extensive mating experiments. I am currently in the process of analysing the results of these experiments and how they fit into my wider PhD findings.

Additionally, I am also working to scan the male genitals of these spiders using micro-CT, to analyse the morphology of the RTA and the impact this could have on introgression.

I cannot wait until these analyses are complete so I can share my full finding with The Society and the scientific community.

Simon wins the Sparling Travel Award

Congratulations to Simon, who recently won a $4000 Sparling Travel Award to take a long-awaited trip to Germany next month. While there, Simon will present his research at the European Congress of Arachnology, then spend some time in Prof Peter Michalik’s lab at the University of Greifswald. In Peter’s lab Simon will learn how to create 3D models of spider palps (male genitalia) that he has recently been prepping for by scanning the spiders using a micro-CT machine. Once back in New Zealand, Simon will use these models to conduct geometric morphometric analyses, to understand how genital shape may limit or allow introgression (transfer of genes) between two co-existing species of fishing spiders.

Special issue on the ecological & evolutionary implications of allometry now published

Just out this week in Evolutionary Ecology is a special issue put together by Emma Sherratt (University of Adelaide) Erin McCullough (Clark University) and myself, where we collated 14 original papers on the ecological and evolutionary implications of allometry.

We were pleased to get contributions spanning all three levels of biological scaling: ontogenetic allometry (scaling across an individual’s development), static allometry (scaling among individuals of the same developmental stage), and evolutionary allometry (scaling among species). The papers also spanned a wide number of taxonomic groups from insects to reptiles, and used a diverse range of methological approaches to explore the importance of allometry in animal biology.

Contributions to the special issue across a wide taxonomic breadth and across three biological levels of allometry. From Sheratt et al 2022, figure by Ellen M. Martin

My paper on size and shape variation in the head weapons of Hoherius meinertzhageni, an endemic anthribid weevil from New Zealand, was included in the issue. They’re pretty photogenic wee critters, so were a great choice for a cover image for the journal. See the paper for more beautiful photos by Pete McGregor, and check out these two fantastic videos (also by Pete) showing how males use their head shields during fights, and some sneaking behaviour by a tiny-headed male.

Cover image with a photo of a major male Hoherius meinertzhageni by Pete McGregor

Thank you to my co-guest editors for putting up with my absence while I was off getting to know kid #2, all the authors who contributed their research to the edition, the reviewers who found time during a pandemic to critique the manuscripts, and to Chief Editor at Evolutionary Ecology Matt Symonds for the invite to put this together.

Bird-dropping masquerading spider paper makes the cover of Current Zoology

Our recent paper on a very cool spider that masquerades as bird-droppings has made the cover of Current Zoology.

Cover photo of Phrynarachne ceylonica by Xu Xin

In this study Yu Long, then a PhD student at Hubei University in China, combined field observations, field experiments and visual modelling to test whether Phyrnarachne ceylonica spiders aggressively mimics bird droppings in order to deceive potential prey. I was lucky to visit Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in beautiful Yunnan in 2015 while I was a postdoc at the National University of Singapore working on jumping spiders. This is where I met Yu Long and was able to give him a hand searching for bird-dropping spiders in the undergrowth of the forest for his experiments.

During his field observations, Yu Long found that the spiders attracted as many fly and hymenopteran prey as nearby fresh bird droppings, and much more prey than a bare leaf. In the next stage of his project Yu Long either experimentally whitened or blackened the spiders to look at how this affected prey attraction rates. As predicted, prey was attracted to experimentally blackened or whitened spiders significantly less frequently than to unmanipulated spiders. Finally, by measuring the colour of the spiders and bird droppings, we were able to show that both of these objects can be seen by visiting fly and hymenopteran prey when contrasting against background leaves. However, the spiders and bird droppings were visually indistinguishable from each other when looking through the eyes of a fly or bee.

Together these findings suggest that insects attracted to spiders may misidentify the spiders as bird droppings, meaning that the spiders not only receive benefits of looking like bird poo to avoid being picked off by predators, but also use aggressive mimicry to lure unsuspecting prey looking for a pooey feed.

Just some of the fascinating invertebrates found in the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden