Teatime tips on how to get a postdoc

This week I’ve been cosied up in the grand old Carrington Hotel in the Blue Mountains of NSW for the annual meeting of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB). On the last day of the conference we had a bunch of ‘taking your career to the next level’ discussions over breakfast, during which Luke Holman and I chatted about some strategies to getting a postdoc position. Obviously there are many ways to knit a sweater, but we strung together a few ideas that we think may have helped us get jobs after our PhDs (or for me, things I wished I had done better). I thought I’d post some of our discussion points here – so here, in no particular order, are some of our musings:

Papers, papers, papers. Are you sick of hearing how important papers are yet? You probably don’t need anyone telling you that publishing as early as possible during and straight after your PhD is important. But don’t despair! It’s normal to not have a very strong track record coming out of your PhD. I was lucky to jump straight into a 1 year faculty postdoc that was awarded to my PhD supervisor to help us get stronger pilot data towards a big grant we were applying for. This extra year with my PhD boss allowed me plenty of time to publish all my thesis chapters as well as starting a new project, which meant I was a much stronger candidate when I applied for my next postdoc. So, my suggestion is to talk to lots of academics that you know and see if they can help get together some short-term funding to hire you at this stage of your career and also look for your own short-term pots of money (e.g. Endeavour fund, Kate Edger postdoc award etc.). I also know of lots of people who have had luck getting postdocs straight out of their PhD with very few publications by applying for advertised projects (like on EvolDir etc.). You can use the cover letter to emphasise your future potential and point out how awesome you are, even though you’ve only just finished the PhD.

On that note, don’t be too disillusioned if you can’t find something straight after the PhD. I know some brilliant people who cleaned office buildings or did odd jobs around the university for a while after they finished before anything in their field cropped up. Luke even mentioned that he was on the dole for a while and look at him now (a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne). If you do find yourself without an academic position try to keep writing during this period to prevent a lull in publications in your CV.

Build networks. Again you have probably heard this many times but both Luke and I talked about how this has been a huge benefit to our careers so far. The easiest way to do this is to go to conferences and chat to the people who you may like to work with. If you are a very introverted person it can help to make a little list of the most important couple of people that you would like to make connections with and then aim to approach them during tea breaks. You could even email them in advance to set up meeting times and give them a heads up if you feel particularly awkward about approaching them without prior contact.

In addition to conferences a visit to a research lab that you may like to start a collaboration with can be really beneficial. There are small grants available for this kind of thing like the Company of Biologists travel fellowships, Smithsonian Short-term fellowships or the Ernst Mayr Travel Grants. Even if these visits don’t result in a job, they still help build independence away from the PhD lab and you may be able to hone a new skill that you couldn’t have learned at your home university.

If you do contact people via email, make sure you show them that you know what they do and have read their work. A sure way to be ignored is to make it obvious you are cold calling a whole bunch of random people without putting any thought into your emails. If you can propose a project that would appeal to the interests of both parties you will look awesome and if you have already plotted some ideas for where to apply for funding that would be even better. Also, academics are a vain bunch and it is nice if you can call them by their correct name and title….I get kind of annoyed by regular Hey You emails.

If you are applying for an advertised position make sure to really carefully follow the instructions. If they ask you to combine everything into one pdf then do that! Failure to follow instructions shows a lack of attention to detail and can put you immediately into the ‘no pile’, regardless of your stellar CV. Make sure to also think really carefully about your cover letter as this is the hook that reels your potential future employer in and may result in them looking more closely at your CV. Tell them what specific skills you can bring to the job that fits nicely with what they require. Alex Bond has some other great tips for applying for field jobs that are equally relevant to answering postdoc ads.

Being visible online is becoming increasingly important. If you don’t already have a Google Scholar profile then set one up – it is super easy to do and allows people to quickly assess your publication record and impact. There are loads of other ways to have an online profile: ResearchGate, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. I don’t think there is a best social media platform to be on so just pick a couple and keep them up to date. I would highly recommend making a personal website too. Think of it like an online CV and a way to show off your creativity if you are so inclined. There are lots of platforms that will host your website for free or for pretty cheap like WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace and GoogleSites. For inspiration check out some of my favourite websites by fellow ecologists – Mike Kasumovic, Kate Umbers, and James O’Hanlon. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to code or do anything too tricky – just choose a free template and away you go.

Luke and I also discussed the pros and cons of going off on wee jaunts to new labs after our PhDs vs sticking around and continuing existing projects. Luke made a good point that if you have a good thing going with your experiments in the PhD lab it could be quite useful to run with this momentum and continue on these projects to get bigger and better publications. On the other hand it can be great to build independence by doing short-term collaborations that may end up in a publication without your PhD supervisor. The latter is a lot of fun but can be risky, especially because it takes time to learn a new study system and things inevitably go wrong with new experiments.

Finally, my last tip is to build an interesting and varied CV. Sure, papers are most important but it is also great to mix things up with a bit of teaching, outreach and service. You could offer to do a couple of guest lectures, give talks at schools or amateur societies, promote your research in the media, join societies and get yourself on boards and committees. I found being on boards a great way to meet new people and extend my academic network. Plus you get better at being able to talk to people from other departments/universities which helps hone your communication skills. If you are still early on in your career and not getting asked to do manuscript reviews yet you could sign up for a mentoring system like the one offered at the New Zealand Journal of Ecology where ECRs get papers to review with support from more senior academics. All this may not be super important for getting a research focussed postdoc, but will certainly help you later with getting faculty jobs and jobs outside of academia.

A couple of other little thoughts:

  • When big grants get announced (e.g. ARC, Marsden, NSF, etc.) you could check out the list of winners and then directly approach people who you might like to work with to see if they have any $ for postdocs.
  • I’ve been told many times to apply for anything and everything but this is not a strategy that I’ve taken on board myself. Applying for jobs takes a lot of time and I only apply for things I realistically would consider taking up. Opinions vary on this one though a lot and I have been told several times that you don’t want your first big interview to be for your dream job as it is good to get practice.
  • Some of the best skills that you gain during your PhD are those that are less tangible*, like being a friggen awesome project manager, handling large datasets, and being a creative problem solver. These skills can be especially useful to promote if applying for non-academic jobs or even those outside of the science sector where they may not care about your sweet list of publications in Nature & Science.
  • Ask your colleagues for copies of their winning grant applications to help you prepare for your own applications (thanks Fonti for reminding me of this one!)

With all of this in mind I think it is still important to acknowledge that this is all really hard and even if you tick all the boxes the right job may not come along at the right time. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have things fall into place fairly seamlessly over the last few years and a lot of this has come down to chance – seriously! However, even a lot of the lucky breaks wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t already have good relationships with a bunch of really great people, and if I didn’t show that I could put all this stuff onto paper in reputable journals.

For a list of postdoc funds and other tips, check out my earlier blog post here.

Thanks very much to Luke Holman for the chat, to Kate Umbers for asking me to contribute to the ASSAB brekkie discussions, and to the students for their interest & great questions.

*Thanks to Kate Lomas for discussion about some of these ideas


Taking a misty trot along the clifftops after the ASSAB conference in Katoomba, NSW

Fiddlers on the mudflats

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a little time on the mudflats of Darwin a while back with Pat Backwell and her team of postdocs and PhD students. Pat invited me to complete a project that had already been started in a previous field season, looking at coercive mating in a very charismatic fiddler crab, Uca mjoebergi, sometimes called a banana crab.

If you’ve spent much time hanging out on beaches or estuaries in the tropics, you may have noticed hundreds of tiny little crabs with one oversized claw waving like mad – a rather peculiar sight. These are the aforementioned fiddler crab, a group of around 100 species that are united by their possession of one tiny claw and one giant Popeye-esque claw.


A male Uca mjoebergi fiddler crab with his HUGE yellow claw (right) coupled with tiny feedling claw (left)

Males produce these huge claws and wave them around for two reasons: to  ward off male competitors and attract females.

Banana crabs dig burrows across the mudflats which they use as shelter when not out foraging and when the tide rises each day to inundate the area. It’s a lot of work digging a burrow so the crabs will defend them from cheeky neighboring crabs that may want to kick them out and take over their sweet pad. Males stop burrow takeovers by first waving at any potential rivals to stay away using their big claw as a signal of strength and willingness to inflict injury if necessary. If rivals do try to enter a male’s burrow, they will use their big claws as weapons and grapple until the eventual loser decides to retreat.

U Mjoebergi fighting

Two male crabs fight for the resident male’s burrow (left), using their claws as weapons

Male burrows are also important real estate because this is where female fiddler crabs hang out after they have mated. Deep inside the burrow they extrude their eggs and wait for the embryos to develop on the underside of their abdomen before they pop up onto the mud flat and release their larval brood on the next spring tide.

Females are fussy about the burrows that they choose to rear their young. Because the burrows are only covered in water for a couple of nights each fortnight it is essential that her babies develop at the right speed so they don’t miss the chance to disperse into the ocean. Burrow width and depth directly influence temperature inside the shaft, such that narrow burrows are warmer and will speed up rate of embryo development in contrast to wider, cooler burrows.


A female banana crab loaded with eggs. Photo credit: Tanya Detto, used with permission from Pat Backwell

So, just as a male waves to keep rival males away, he also waves to attract females as they wander over the mudflat in search of a mate. If the female likes the look of the male she’ll come in closer for a better look at his burrow by placing her feet at the entrance and checking out it’s suitability for raising her young. Often the female is not satisfied with the burrow conditions and will wander on in search of a better male and a better burrow, sometimes visiting up to 20 males before she finds one she likes.

Uca mjoebergi.jpg

A male Uca mjoebergi fiddler crab (left) waves at an approaching female (right) to entice her to visit his burrow. Photo credit: Tanya Detto, used with permission from Pat Backwell

Normally as the female approaches, the male will go down his burrow and wait for the female to follow him down. If she does enter this is usually a sign that she has given him the go-ahead to mate and will move in for the next couple of weeks.

However, sometimes the male will hang back and awkwardly continue waving at the female next to his burrow while she waits for him to go down the burrow shaft. Usually the female gives up and moves on if the male doesn’t go down the shaft first – but sometimes she will enter the burrow anyway.

At this point, the male will dash down the burrow after the female and trap her inside the narrow shaft. If the female does get trapped below the male, there is a much higher chance that she will stay down, presumably mate with the male, and remain in the burrow to hatch her eggs. In a paper that we published this week in PlosOne, we argue that the alternative male behaviour of entering the burrow after the female has gone down is a form of coercion.

To figure out whether males that trap females had a higher chance of mating success than those that used the more traditional behaviour of going down the burrow first, we tracked females as they went in search of mates on the mud flat. Pat Backwell has been working on a population of fiddler crabs at East Point Reserve in Darwin for a number of years now, and knows just about everything there is to know about them.

When I was visiting in September 2014, Pat had two PhD students and two other postdocs working on fiddler crab behaviour. During the neap tides we would spend our days under umbrellas in the baking heat, armed with binoculars and notebooks as we watched the crabs running around the mud flat.

Mudflat with umbrellas

Fiddler crab biologist Kecia Kerr watching her population of fiddler crabs

As females approached waving male crabs, I would observe whether the male entered the burrow before or after the female, and then checked whether the female stayed down with the male to mate. If the female did stay down for a few minutes – a pretty sure sign she would mate – I marked burrows with a little flag and covered it with a plastic enclosure so that after a few days I could dig up the female and see if she had extruded eggs.

U mjoebergi lots on mudflat & marked burrows

Lots of little yellow-clawed crabs with a few burrows marked out on the mudflat

We don’t yet know why females would take the risk of entering the burrow first if there was the possibility of getting trapped, but we found a convincing benefit for males: females that entered first were 3 times more likely to stay down and mate with the male, making it a pretty successful strategy for tricky males. 90% of the females we checked later had extruded eggs, suggesting that they did indeed mate after being trapped inside.

So who are these coercive males? We thought that males that “step aside” and wait for a female to enter the burrow first would be of poorer quality, because they may use coercion to mate with females that may not otherwise have chosen them. However, we found no relationship between male body size and the mating tactic he used, nor did we find that small (and perhaps naive females) were those that were ‘fooled’ by these coercive males. One thing we did not check was whether males that step aside have crappier burrows, making coercive mating a way of getting around the problem of not providing the female with a great home to develop her embryos. This is something to look at in future.

U mjoebergi lots on mudflat 2

It takes a while to get your eye in to watch fiddler crabs & it’s particularly hard to locate females, who lack the distinctive yellow claw of males

Coercive mating has been observed in a number of other animals including insects and birds. Male camel crickets in the USA, for example, use big spines on their hind legs to pin a female down and force her to mate. Check out this video to see how they do it. Although it would be logical to assume that large males with the longest leg spines are best able to restrain females, coercion is actually a small-male behaviour. In this species, like what we predicted for the fiddler crabs, coercion is only done by males that probably wouldn’t have had much hope in attracting females anyway.

Male hihi (stichbirds) in New Zealand also appear to sometimes forcefully copulate with females, during which they pin the female to the ground and mate face-to-face, a unique behaviour among birds.


A male hihi on Tirtiri Matangi Island, NZ. Photo by Duncan Wright (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s really, really tricky to actually test the difference between female choice (i.e. she actually wants to stay down in the burrow) versus coercion (she is trapped and would leave if the male didn’t block her passage) in fiddler crabs. Given that mating happens underground we can’t witness any potential struggle between the pair, or if the female may even be using the struggle to test something about the male (like his strength or vigour). So, we may never know for sure if this alternative male mating tactic is truly coercion. What this study has shown is that male fiddler crabs will get up to all sorts of tricks to better their sex lives!

sunset darwin

One of the many amazing sunsets in Darwin

Better science writing

How many times do you read a journal article and feel like you are wading through a thick swamp of jargon and abstract concepts? I know I’ve been guilty of writing some pretty stodgy prose myself, so lately I’ve been working on how to make my writing a little more lively.

Science writing shouldn’t have to bore you to death to convince you that the science presented in the article is sound. Unfortunately it’s often easier to write lethargic, heavy text than it is to write creatively using active and concrete language. Writing well requires a lot of effort but I think it is well worth it. Not only is great writing more likely to get your point across more clearly to your scientist peers, but you are also more likely to make your work readable to a non-specialist audience.

There are lots of great texts available for those wanting to improve their writing. On one weekend away last year I lounged about in a hammock on a tropical island reading Helen Sword‘s fantastic “Stylish Academic Writing“. With a cocktail in one hand and book in the other, Helen took me on a surprisingly fun journey from arresting abstracts to zombie nouns.


I can highly recommend a beach-side cabin next time you need to brush up on your academic writing skills

The main points I took away were that, to communicate the often abstract ideas we are talking about in science, we should aim to use concrete examples and active language. This takes a lot of practice but luckily for us, Helen has a fabulous online test to accompany the new edition of her other book “The Writers Diet“.  This test works best if you have read the book so that you have some clue of what to do next if you find you have some problem areas you need to work on. The Writers Diet is a tiny little gem of a book, and takes very little time to read and absorb the basics.

In the online test you can plug in pieces of your own writing, and find out where your writing is most flabby – or if you are unlucky, in heart-attack zone. As you can see from a piece of my own (published) writing, I am in serious need of a makeover.

Writers Diet

An embarrassingly obese bit of writing that I’ve put through the writersdiet.com test

Most importantly, I’m on the way to cardiac arrest with the way I use verbs and nouns. My abuse of boring, abstract “to be” verbs plagues much of my writing, and is something that I need to work on most. It is so much easier to say “my writing is boring” rather than constructing a sentence around an active verb that makes the reader visualise what you are trying to say. Helen recommends appealing to the human senses with your verb usage – make your readers taste, smell or see your ideas.

All those blue highlighted words in the picture above are nasty nominalizations, or the aforementioned zombie nouns. Funnily enough, the word “nominalization” is a nominalization in itself! These are abstract nouns that have suffixes ending in -ion, -ism, -ment, etc. They are words that once were verbs or adjectives, that have been morphed into long-winded nouns. They may sound clever, but as Helen says, they suck the life out of your sentence and are best avoided. Check out this great TED animation on zombie nouns if you want to laugh and learn at the same time.

I think that perhaps one of the best benefits of reading Helen’s work is to gain the confidence to write creatively and with humour, without feeling like the science itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m encouraged to see that quite a few of my peers are embracing creative writing in formal publications. A recent (open access) review paper by Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross in the Journal of Arachnology is an elegant example of how to write informatively AND with style. From the very first sentence, the authors grab the reader: “As arachnologists, we like spiders, but we are all too familiar with people who enjoy telling us, often with considerable pride, about their fear and loathing for our favorite animals”. They don’t disappoint throughout the rest of the paper either, taking us on a journey to learn about mosquito-terminator spiders using vivid metaphors and simple but enjoyable sentences.

In today’s world where we are bombarded with a never ending stack of papers to read,  being able to really enjoy the writing style of a paper ensures that we stick around for the whole story, rather than giving up before the end of the first paragraph. In Stephen Heard’s (@StephenBHeard) very recently published guide book on writing for scientists, he mentions* that spending all this time learning to write well is not just to make your readers life more enjoyable. From a purely selfish point of view, you don’t want  your paper to be one of those that gets set aside because it is too hard-going. You are doing yourself a favour by writing prose that an editor, reviewers and peers enjoy, because then you are helping them see the point of your work without having to trudge through tedious text.

It’s all very well to want to learn to write better stories, but a fairly important part of this is actually sitting down and committing to doing the writing.  One of the biggest impediments to writing is having a quiet space to think. Given that so many of us – particularly students –  now work in large open plan offices – getting into the writing zone is becoming increasingly difficult. The constant buzz of activity around me and the poorly timed interruptions is certainly one of the reasons I ended up writing most of my PhD thesis from home.

So how then to find time and space to write?

For me, starting early in the morning is key to success, and usually from a very quiet space like my dining room table. Sometimes even a bustling cafe can be a great writing space, as long as you can zone out white noise. Sometimes I NEED to have music playing to relax and other times I need total silence. Just be open to exploring the best avenue for you and then once you figure it out, make sure you actually set aside writing time every day/week where you create that perfect environment. There’s always something more urgent to do, like sending off that email or making that new cake recipe you found**, but if you factor in writing time into your diary and stick with it, you are much more likely to have success!

If being confronted by a blank white page is what frightens you, try making a mind map or the figures for your paper first, as this may help to make a plan for your story. This was advice I heard in a talk by Gavin Lear a couple of years ago***. I sometimes follow the figures with an abstract, as a kind of elevator pitch that hits home what I want my main take-home message to be. Other times I simply start with a whole bunch of randomly placed bullet-points that I flesh out over time (this can be good if you have 20 minutes spare, here and there).

I also find spending a few days on writing retreats a great way to clear the head and focus on a piece of writing. A few of us from the ecology group at UoA recently spent a couple of days writing from the Forest & Bird lodge at Piha Beach, as a break from the city office. A lack of internet access is great for avoiding email and other commitments, and having a set amount of time to get something on paper can be a great way to be productive. Setting some ground rules for when it is ok to chat might be a good idea, and I’ve found a small number of similarly stressed people who need the quiet time as much as you do works well. A beach setting to provide much needed long walks to clear the head is imperative, as are several bottles of good wine or a well-placed pub.

Writing a blog (or some other form of creative outlet) is also really great for exercising the brain. My hope is that over time better writing will become natural, so that I eventually have to make less effort to make my scientific manuscripts more captivating. Today I submitted a manuscript that I worked really hard to shape into a nice piece of prose using Helen’s tips. I put it through the writers diet test with great results (it was fit & lean!) – fingers crossed the editor likes it.

Happy writing!

writing retreat piha

Blissful evening walk to stretch the legs & brains after a day writing at Piha Beach (Photo taken by Megan Friesen)

*I must confess here that I am yet to get a hold of Stephen’s book. I have, however, had a cheeky read of the first chapter available on the publisher’s website, where I picked up the point made here about writing to improve your own chances of being read.

**Procastibaking became my favourite hobby during the final stages of my PhD. It was great to feel like I was doing something productive (like providing my lab mates with cake) while also avoiding the tortuous beast that was my thesis.

*** Gavin’s talk was based on this piece by Corey Bradshaw, not to be confused with Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City who I’m sure would also have lots of tips for doing good writing.

Glamerous and glittery spiders

Today I’ve been busy writing up a manuscript on a very special spider that I worked on in Singapore, called Orsima ichneumon. It’s early days to report our findings yet, but in the meantime I couldn’t help but share a couple of these beautiful images that my husband (Caleb Nicholson) took during some sessions in the lab.

Orsima female_sideview1_small

A very plump (gravid) female showing off her splendid colours

Orsima male_sideview4_small

A typical male with a much slimmer and constricted abdomen, brighter colours, and very long forelegs

Male Orsima3.jpg

Males perform courtship displays to females, including showing off their brightly coloured abdomen by bending it upwards to face her

Mating pair.jpg

A mating pair – after a series of complex courtship maneuvers, the male spider (right) inserts his pedipalp into the female’s genital opening (epigynum) to transfer sperm


Locked in battle.jpg

Two males, front legs outstretched, about to lock jaws in battle


Juveniles have translucent legs and a cute orange mask


The photographer being a great field assistant, watching spiders near Gombak Field Station in Malaysia


Even roadside collecting for these spiders in Malaysia is pretty special, here we could hear gibbons calling in the valley


Checking out the umbrella “beat sheet” for Orsima spiders on the roadside

Autumn fun with giraffe weevils

In the weeks I’ve been back in Auckland I’ve been largely stuck to my desk finishing off a couple of papers and grant applications, and getting myself organised for the harvestmen project.Luckily I was able to head out yesterday to Matuku Reserve, my old PhD field site in west Auckland for a few hours of searching for giraffe weevils. Despite the weather cooling off, there were still plenty of those goofy critters around to watch and get inspiration for new projects.

Giraffe weevil pair

A pair of giraffe weevils hanging out on a mossy karaka branch

It was really interesting to see how much the forest has changed since the last time I was out there. Huge karaka trees that had consistently hosted giraffe weevils each summer during the 5 years I spent at the reserve are now completely rotted or fallen down. I also spotted a few trees that were currently playing host to the weevils, either already filled with larvae, as revealed by fresh piles of sawdust piled up underneath the tree, or covered in adult pairs busily mating and laying eggs.

Rotted tree

A multi-stemmed karaka tree now almost completely rotted and partially collapsed after years of giraffe weevil (& other insect) attack

new sawdust

Fresh sawdust kicked out of larva tunnels and piled up underneath a karaka tree

Although officially working on harvestmen for the new postdoc, I still have lots of ideas for taking my research on this fascinating species further. Giraffe weevils have also been on my mind over the last week as Nicola Toki chose them as her Critter of the Week on Radio New Zealand. It’s always great to spread the word about some of our smaller but no less interesting species. Also, Mike Dickison (@adzebill) and his team noticed that the Wikipedia page for the giraffe weevils was pretty awful, so they did a very speedy but thorough job in updating the page and it now looks great! It’s worth checking out if you want to learn what we already know about this species and if you’ve always wanted giraffe weevils as your desk top photo you’re in luck because I’ve donated a few photos for public use.

The reason I was out in the bush yesterday was that I’m hoping to start a new project on my favourite invertebrate, looking at trade-offs between traits that allow them to win mating opportunities through fights (i.e. their long heads used as weapons) versus traits that allow them to gain more fertilizations (i.e. more and better quality sperm).

Sperm competition in the giraffe weevil is likely to be a really important factor affecting  a male’s reproductive success, because females can mate multiple times before they lay their egg. This means that competition between males continues after any physical combat that has allowed them to mate, because sperm from other males that have also mated with the female are vying to fertilize the egg. Sperm competition has led to all sorts of ways that males increase their fertilization success, including investing in more sperm (bigger ejaculates) and extensive post-copulation (after mating) guarding behaviour to stop any other males from having a chance to mate.

There is a lot of discussion in the scientific literature about these theorized trade-offs between competition among males that occurs before and after mating. The main idea is that males often have to invest in either big weapons and traits that allow them to find and secure mates, OR traits like big volumes of really high quality sperm that allow them to ensure paternity. Because energetic resources are limited, they shouldn’t be able to freely invest in both sets of traits. So, when considering that big giraffe weevil males are investing a lot into really big weapons (their long ‘noses’), we might expect them to be investing less into sperm traits than smaller males. This is because during larval development, the cells that eventually become adult body parts in beetles are formed after the larvae has stopped feeding, meaning that there is a limited pool of resources.

Sperm competition is particularly interesting when considering the giraffe weevils, as not only do female’s mate lots of times before egg-laying, there are also tiny little males running around and sneaking matings while the big males stand over females and try to guard them. As you can see from a scene I witnessed yesterday, big males are often not to so successful in preventing sneaker males from mating, as the little guys literally mate under the ‘nose’ of the guarding male.

Sneaky male with pair 2

A little sneaker male mating with a female while bigger male stands guard

Despite their devious behaviour, small males probably suffer from higher levels of sperm competition than big males, especially if guarding males end up mating again after they detect a sneaker’s presence as a form of retaliation.We might then expect small males to invest more into each mating than a larger male, in the form of big ejaculates in an attempt to flood the female with lots of his sperm. This has been observed in other insect systems with sneaky males, such as dung beetles, where little males ejaculate more per mating than large males and also have relatively bigger testes than their larger male counterparts.

Sneaky male with pair

The same sneaky male mating while a larger male guards

We still have so much to learn about the mating systems of insects, and the giraffe weevils provide us with a really great opportunity to study these questions. Unlike lots of insects they are easy to observe in the wild, in big numbers, and in daylight hours (after long nights in the field watching harvestmen, the giraffe weevils seem like little angels). They also tend to stick around on one tree as adults which makes it easy to mark them with a unique colour combo on their bodies, and then track them through their lifetime.

marking weevil

Marking a female giraffe weevil with coloured paints for easy ID in the wild

Having an abundant population at Matuku Reserve so close to Auckland makes life as a behavioural ecologist much easier too, as we can do lots of work in nature without too much travel. It’s not a bad spot to do research either…


Taking a break to listen out for fern birds in the wetland at Matuku Reserve







The end of a year abroad

Last week, after a year of doing science in Singapore, we packed our bags and headed back to our home town of Auckland, New Zealand. In a few weeks I’ll start back at the University of Auckland to kick off our project on the evolution of weaponry in harvestmen. In the meantime I’m enjoying taking time to catch up with friends and family, and even managed to find a few of my old pals, NZ giraffe weevils, on our first weekend back.


Reuniting with friends!

Omanawa Falls

Paradise! Omanawa Falls near Tauranga

The last month in Singapore was hectic as I was trying to wrap up the project as best I could and make sure my undergraduate students were all sorted for carrying on their research. We also spent lots of time out in the jungle in a last ditch attempt to try and find my study species in Singapore (we found 1 male, 1 female and 1 juvenile!) and to try and glimpse some of the missing animals from our wish list.

These last few weeks happily coincided with a visit by Ummat Somjee, a PhD student from Dr Christine Miller’s lab at the University of Florida. Ummat is working on sexually selected traits in coreid bugs and was keen to find some nice candidates with exaggerated hind legs to work on. We found a fantastic species, Anoplocnemis phasiana, which has extraordinarily huge hind legs. Ummat spent his time in Singapore looking at how males and females invest into these huge hind legs and other body parts, and how males use these as weapons during fights with other males to secure females.


The incredible hind legs of a male Anoplocnemis phasiana


Ummat’s visit was a great excuse to revisit some of our favourite haunts too, including a final cycle around Palau Ubin, a little island off the east coast of Singapore. We were lucky to spot the flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) that tend to hang around Jelutong Campground. However, we also noticed a completely black hornbill hanging around and realised it was a female Black Hornbill (A. malayanus), perhaps dispersed across from Peninsula Malaysia or an escaped pet.


A male oriental pied hornbill (left) and a female black hornbill (right)

Back on the mainland we were also lucky to come across some great finds including a Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri), a paradise gliding snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), and several colugos or flying lemurs (Galeopterus variegatus).

Waglers Viper

A juvenile or male Wagler’s pit viper at Bukit Timah Reserve

Paradise gliding snake

Paradise gliding snake at Dairy Farm Reserve


A curious colugo checking out Caleb with his camera

One of the most interesting finds was this Portia labiata jumping spider feeding on a huge Argiope spider. Portia are araneophagic (spider-eating) spiders that have incredible cognitive ability, leading to fascinating strategies for hunting different species. Portia are able to sneak up on their prey using very slow stalking behaviour combined with their leaf litter-like appearance. They are also known to pluck a spider’s web, imitating a struggling insect, to lure the resident spider towards them. When stalking venomous spitting spiders, Portia will approach from behind to avoid being perceived and attacked.


A female Portia hanging from a silk thread and munching on a huge Argiope spider

As well as all these fun trips around the island, I’ve also been reflecting on my year abroad and what is has offered me in terms of both professional and personal experience. Despite the challenges of adjusting to a very different culture and way of life in Singapore I am so happy I took the plunge. I was lucky to be able to go at a time in my life where I had few responsibilities (i.e. no kids or mortgage) and had the financial means to move both myself and my husband across the world to live off one income. This is important to recognise because I think there is an enormous amount of pressure on postdocs (actually all academics) to be super flexible and travel anywhere in the world to take up a job. Sophie Lewis wrote an excellent article about the expectation of academics to spread their career across multiple institutes and countries, and why she believes this is no longer necessary. I largely agree with Sophie and would have to say that a lot of the benefits to working abroad that I discuss below could have also been achieved via shorter-term research visits, conferences, and online networking.

The major benefits that I took away from my year in Singapore:

  • Research experience: The most obvious and biggest benefit to working at NUS was working in a very different lab, working on a new study system in a different area of behavioural ecology. Although I’m keen to get stuck back in to my main research interest, I have come away with a new set of skills and lots of new knowledge about spiders and visual ecology that I didn’t have before. This has the potential to lead to all sorts of future opportunities and collaborations! Importantly this has also helped me to be better at problem solving, has stretched my brain to move into a field I knew little about and has helped me cross paths with a different group of researchers that I hadn’t interacted with before.
  • Networking: There’s nothing like arriving in a new place with no friends to force one to get out there and make new contacts! NZ is far away from just about anywhere, so it has been a great to be somewhere a little more central to meet scientists based at NUS or travelling through Singapore.
  • Tropical biodiversity: My knowledge of biodiversity is much richer than when I first arrived in Singapore. Working in the tropics was so different to temperate NZ and I found it incredible that I saw numerous new species every time I went out to the forest. I like to think this will be a source of inspiration for future project ideas, and help me to make comparisons to the temperate regions I’ve worked in. I have loads of great photographs (mostly taken by Caleb) that can be used as examples in teaching.
  • Travel opportunities: Related to the point above, working in SE Asia led to so many amazing trips abroad to collect spiders or go on mini-vacations. Whether mucking around in the central catchment of Singapore or wandering the jungles & highlands of Malaysia it was exciting every time. Field work is the best part of my job and doing it across multiple countries in tropical Asia was just so fun.
  • Learning to work with new people: Any new job requires learning to fit in with new people, but for me, working in a region of the world with a very different culture to my own has been a novel challenge. Our lab was made up of students from Singapore, China, Taiwan and Malaysia which has been so great for learning about cultural and religious practices from countries other than my own. I think it will help me to be better at supervising a diverse range of students in the future.
  • My relationship: My husband didn’t work while in Singapore but spent a lot of time helping me in the lab and the field. We lived without a TV and had really great discussions each night over dinner or on evening walks. Having lots of days and every evening together was a big change for us after many years of shift work for Caleb. So, bizarrely given the strain that this job could have put on our relationship had we decided to do it long distance, Caleb’s unemployed “sabbatical” turned out to be a really great move for us.

The biggest challenges:

  • Culture shock: It took a lot longer to settle in than I thought it would and despite Singapore being a rather westernized part of Asia, we still experienced culture shock. We got around this by really trying to learn as much as possible about our new country, going to festivals and eating/shopping where locals did. 2015 turned out to be a fascinating time to be in Singapore with the huge celebrations of 50 years of independence and the death of the beloved founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It took ages to learn the basics though and sometimes tasks that would take me half an hour in NZ took me all day. One day it took me about 6 hours and 4 expensive taxi rides to source a piece of sandpaper that ended up costing me 40 cents!
  • Pressure to hit the ground running: Largely driven by my own anxieties and self-expectations, I really struggled to get the project underway and feel like I was being a good postdoc. I guess it could be said that I was suffering from imposter syndrome, although at the time it just felt like I was a terrible scientist and about to waste a whole bunch of time and money doing something that a better qualified person should be doing. The first 5 months or so were pretty tough and I felt ungrateful for being given such a neat opportunity to live and work in a new place. Things got a lot better once we did a couple of lengthy field trips to Malaysia & China where we came “home”to our apartment in Singapore.
  • Finding friends: I always thought I was good at making friends but I struggled a lot in Singapore. I found that just getting through a work day in a new environment was enough of a challenge without adding the extra pressure of going out and networking with expats or joining clubs. It got better with time but in hindsight I wish that I had tried harder early on because I’m sure it would have helped with those anxious first few months. Other friends who’ve moved abroad have had success using Meetups.com which is a online notice board with a whole bunch of different groups that you can join from tennis to conversational language to philosophy.
  • Project achievements: One year just isn’t really long enough to really sink your teeth into a project and get a lot out of it. If I could recommend a time period I would say a postdoc of at least 2 years would be a smart choice, especially if you have to make major changes to the project after a few months like I did. Getting outputs in a short period of time would be less risky, however, if slotting into a lab where you are taking up one part of a larger project, or working on a very well-established system.

Overall, for me the year away ended up as one rolling adventure from start to finish. I think we knew early on that we weren’t going to settle in to Singapore easily or want to stay for the long term, so by using the year as a big learning opportunity we were able to keep enthusiasm up throughout. I’m definitely going to miss the food culture in Singapore too…


The best Nonya cendol in Malacca!




Public talk on animal weapons in Singapore

I’m giving a public talk on animal weapons this Friday at the Nature Society of Singapore.

Details in case anyone is interested:

Little creatures with big guns: exploring the diversity of weapon evolution in beetles and harvestmen

Many animal species have evolved exaggerated structures like antlers, claws or spines. They use these as weapons during fights. Despite a long fascination with animal weapons, we still do not know a lot about why there is such remarkable diversity in the types of animal weapons. Dr Chrissie Painting has researched the evolution of weapons and the mating systems of several charismatic invertebrates including the New Zealand Giraffe Weevil and long-legged Harvestmen. Come along to learn why some animals have weapons and discover the curious behaviours used by males to win mates.


New Zealand giraffe weevil males competing for a female (one sneaking, one guarding!)

About the Speaker: Dr Chrissie Painting is a behavioural ecologist, currently working as a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore. Chrissie is from New Zealand, having completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours at Lincoln University in Canterbury in 2007, followed by a PhD at the University of Auckland in 2013. Although she has a broad interest in many aspects of natural history, Chrissie’s research to date has focused on understanding the fascinating mating systems of several small but charismatic insects and arachnids.

Friday 22nd Jan 7pm – 8pm

510 Geylang Road #02-05 The Sunflower Singapore 389466 (see red star on the map below)

Nature Society office


PhD opportunity in the Holwell lab

Wahoo! Greg Holwell at the University of Auckland is hiring a PhD student to work on a very exciting Marsden Funded project on the evolution of weaponry in Opiliones (harvestpeople). This is an exciting opportunity for a student to work on an incredible group of organisms in a beautiful part of the world.

CT scan of chelicerae

CT scanned jaws!

The details:

PhD Scholarship: Evolution of exaggerated male weaponry in harvestmen

$27,000 NZD per year for 3 years.

School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Supervisor: Dr Greg Holwell

I invite suitably motivated and dedicated applicants to apply for a fully funded PhD scholarship to work on the evolution of extreme male weaponry in New Zealand harvestmen (Opiliones). Males from the genera Pantopsalis and Forsteropsalis possess among the most exaggerated weapons in the animal kingdom. Their chelicerae can comprise 50% of their body weight and in some species are polymorphic with males displaying either elongated or short broad forms within the same population. The specific details of the student’s project is up to negotiation but would combine some of the following: field observations throughout New Zealand, behavioural experiments, microCT imaging, geometric morphometrics, molecular phylogenetics and/or comparative methods. The scholarship is available for application now. The successful candidate will have research experience, a strong academic record and possess a MSc or Honours research degree in behavioural ecology, evolutionary biology and/or morphology. The successful candidate will work under the supervision of Dr Greg Holwell (The University of Auckland, NZ), and will have access to a range of world-class facilities at the University of Auckland with the opportunity to travel for both fieldwork and collaboration. This position is funded through the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the successful applicant is expected to begin in early 2016.

Please submit applications directly to Dr Greg Holwell at g.holwell@auckland.ac.nz and provide a CV, academic transcript and a letter detailing your research interests and motivation for considering the project

monoscutid cave harvestman

An Opiliones with huge chelicerae hanging out on a cave wall in Waitomo


Navigating the postdoc journey in NZ & Australia

Recently I’ve been asked by quite a few newly or soon-to-be fledged PhD students about where to look for postdoctoral jobs in academia. Everyone knows finding a postdoc isn’t easy, but it is good to know what is out there and start applying for as many opportunities as possible. Here, as well as describing a little about my own experience so far, I wanted to put together a list of postdoc funds that are available in NZ and Australia for (non-medical) biologists.

My own postdoc journey so far has been the result of a combination of luck, incredible support from my mentors, and of course a fair amount of hard work. As well as landing two one-year postdocs I have also strung together smaller pots of cash to make things work, resulting in an almost continuous 2.5 years of funding since completing my PhD. I think the postdoc years are rarely smooth and it can be stressful to find a job that suits your skills as well as being a good fit for you personally (especially thinking about juggling relationships with loved ones and how to balance the whole research abroad thing). Somehow though, I’ve made it work for me so far despite the journey not necessarily being all that well thought out, and my little hodge-podge career so far has resulted in some fantastic experiences with super interesting people and study animals.

I handed in my PhD thesis in June 2013 and was able to jump immediately into a previously applied for University of Auckland Faculty of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. This one year award was given to Greg Holwell (also my PhD supervisor) to employ me as a postdoc to build up data in support of a new project that we were trying to get more funding for. Continuing on in Greg’s lab and at the same university as my PhD turned out to be hugely beneficial to me for a few reasons. One of the most important benefits was being able to have time to write up the major papers from my PhD thesis in a reasonably fast amount of time, without worrying about annoying a new boss. Of course I spent a lot of time laying the foundations for the new project on harvestmen weaponry, doing lab and field work, and supervising honours and masters students,  but I felt lucky to be granted valuable work hours to also get this writing done. As a side note, I think it should be ok for postdocs to work on some writing from previous stages of their career during work hours. Obviously your current project should be the major priority and most time spent on this. However, my experience so far has shown that I’ll always be writing up something from an earlier project, but I like to think this flows on and will benefit my current boss later when I am writing up my manuscripts at a time when he is no longer paying me. I have talked to other postdocs about this who strongly feel they should only work on those manuscripts after hours, but I think if you can negotiate some freedom around this with your employer then that would make life easier for you!

Another nice part about sticking around Auckland for a little longer was that I picked up a lecturing stint to cover another faculty member going on maternity leave. During this time I was able to gain loads of experience writing and delivering lectures, labs and a field trip for a reasonably large class (~175 students). I think this was a fantastic way to pick up more teaching skills, and it was nice to learn that I really enjoy that aspect of what would  become a major part of my job if I ever pick up a permanent faculty position.

After the end of my first one-year post doc I did two shorter term stints. A chance meeting with Prof Pat Backwell at ANU resulted in the invitation to visit her field site for 6 weeks in late 2014 and do a short-term paid project on fiddler crab behaviour. Although a short time in the field, I managed to help complete an older project with the agreement to write up the manuscript (trying to publish this now) as well as setting out my own experiment in the field (with mixed success). I also wrote and won a Kate Edger Postdoctoral Award which gave me 4 months of half-time salary over the 2014/2015 summer to work on a project that I wanted to get off the ground on weapon shape in anthribid weevils. These awards are designed for women who have recently finished a PhD and want to do a short-term project in the Auckland area. Again this wasn’t much time to get the project off the ground but I’m pleased to have some pilot data that I can use to develop this as a more robust project in the future.

In 2014 I was also writing or co-writing grant applications, most of which were not successful. Eventually though, I was offered a postdoc in A/Prof Daiqin Li‘s lab at NUS in Singapore and in the same week an Endeavour Research Fellowship to work at Deakin University with Dr Matthew Symonds. I chose to go to Singapore given it was an opportunity for several years of salary and research funding as opposed to the Endeavour which was a shorter 4-6 month research experience. More recently, after several years of trying, I managed to land a 3 year postdoc back in NZ via the Marsden Fund through a grant that Dr Greg Holwell and I wrote with our collaborators (Dr Glauco Machado at University of Sao Paulo, and Prof Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University). Although this means skipping out on an extra year in Singapore, the time was right for my husband and I to move back to New Zealand so it has all worked out rather nicely.

I guess all this rambling is to show that there are lots of ways to put together a career in academia in Australasia (with jaunts to SE Asia!). It is definitely not easy and I know luck has played a significant role in where I’ve been so far, but I think if you are keen, creative about making new collaborations and finding opportunities, and doing good research then it is quite possible to make it work….at least for a few years!

What I’ve taken away from all of this so far:

  • Be brave about making connections with new people that you want to work with – knocking on Pat Backwell’s door on my visit through Canberra turned out to be a really fortuitous meeting for me!
  • Apply for lots of funds & jobs to increase your chances of success. I’ve had the advice to apply widely and worry later about whether you really want to take the position if you get an offer, but personally I like to only apply for things I realistically would take up.
  • If you are in a relationship, talk to your loved one about expectations of where in the world you both want to live/work, how to compromise and whether either of you are ok with living apart if need be. Set time limits. Another scientist I know made 6 month check in points with her husband when they were living apart to see if both were coping ok and if anything needed changing.
  • It’s hard to cope with the unknown that comes with going from short-term contract to short-term contract. I was lucky to have a supportive partner who had a full time job outside of academia during the periods where I wasn’t sure what would come next, and this certainly made me feel more secure financially. I tried to go with the flow about this with the thought in mind that if it really started to bother me and opportunities ran out I could look at other options outside of academia (i.e. government agencies, consultancies, teaching). I also talked a lot with my mentors and other postdoc friends to bounce ideas and reduce the anxiety.
  • A possibly negative aspect of my dabbling in various shorter-term projects is that I haven’t really been able to sink my teeth into a larger scale project and get bigger and better publications. I’ve had a lot of fun hopping around the place but output productivity is something to consider when taking on smaller contracts. I’m hoping my next, longer postdoc will allow me to develop my longer term research plans.

Below are some suggestions for grants and ways to find postdocs in Australasia. This list is by no means complete as these are just the options that I am currently aware of and have applied for or considered myself. They are aimed at earlier career researchers, rather than postdocs further down the line (so less than ~5 years post-PhD). I’ve got a mix here of bigger awards, as well as some of the smaller pots of cash that I’ve applied for over the last couple of years. Obviously this ignores all the possibilities for jobs away from Australasia, but hopefully it is helpful to those that might want to come and work down under, or for those that want to stick around the region.

Nationwide awards (Australia & NZ)

Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships: Two year-long funding, $75,000 per year salary + $10,000 research funding.

Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Australia: Up to three years of salary + research funds for the awardee, up to 5 years post-PhD and can only apply twice – so best to apply for these once already quite competitive!

Marsden Fund Fast Starts: (NZ) Supports researchers already employed at a University of research institute, although you can negotiate for an institute to host you during the award period. Up to $100,000 per year for 3 years, up to 7 years post-PhD. Go here for the 2016 application details.

Australian Museum Chadwick Biodiversity Fellowship: (Australia) Two years of salary + research funding, must be an Australian citizen. There are a few other fellowships offered by the Australian museum too.

Australian Biological Resources Study Research Grants: (Australia) Three year grants. Can support a postdoctoral fellow + research funding but requires co-funding from another source to support application.

Ian Potter Foundation: (Australia) Large grants of $100,000+

University postdoctoral schemes (a couple of examples)

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellowship: Deakin University, Melbourne, Two years of salary + $10,000 research funding.

Macquarie University Research Fellowships: Sydney, Australia, Three years salary.

Quite a few other Australian universities offer their own postdoctoral fellowship scheme. I can recommend checking out Professor Scott Keogh’s fantastic & helpful list of postdoc opportunities on his website. It’s worthwhile to note that university postdocs usually require sponsorship from a faculty member that you want to work with, but I’ve often heard that staff can only support one applicant per funding round. Get in touch early with the person you want to work!

Smaller pots of cash (sometimes with small stipends)

Endeavour Research Fellowship: One round opening in April, closing in June(?) each year, up to AUD$24,500 of stipend and travel funding. Good for Aussies wanting to go abroad for a few months or for postdocs from other countries wanting to visit Australia.

Fullbright Scholar Awards: Various awards for Kiwis & Aussies to go to the USA or vice versa for short research/teaching stints.

Australia & Pacific Science Foundation: up to $15,000 research funding per year for 3 years to do a project in Australasia. Not a salary but great for funding the project itself.

Hermon Slade Foundation: up to $30,000 per year for up to 3 years for research in Australia at Australian institutions. Generally not used as salary for research staff or students but can employ a technician.

Australian National Geographic: project sponsorship of up to $15,000 + the Nancy Bird Walton sponsorship for female adventurers ($5,000)/

National Geographic: various awards for research around USD$15-$20,000 for research projects, no salary.

Mohammed Bin Sayed Conservation Grants: up to $25,000 to support conservation projects.

Also check out Dr Kate Umbers great list of smaller research funding opportunities. It’s also worth asking around your department or talking to faculty at other universities about small funding opportunities within the school that may offer some salary or cover research costs. These could tide you over between larger contracts.

Women in Science Awards

Kate Edger Trust Postdoctoral Award: Two rounds a year in February & July, NZD$16,000 research funds, part of which can be used as a stipend, for research in the Auckland area of NZ.

Zonta Science Award: Biannual award for New Zealand women in science, NZD$15,000 award + $3000 travel (NOTE: this one is closing really soon on 8th Feb 2016 if any women based in NZ are keen!)

L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards: Annual, 2016 round closes in April 2016, $25,000 one-year fellowships in NZ & Australia.

Websites and listserves to check out:

I can highly recommend signing up to alerts from EvolDir and Ecolog-L as these are a great source of opportunities for advertised postdoc jobs, usually funded by a PI who has won a large grant.

Lots of societies post job opportunities, so its good to join up to some relevant societies in your field. For example, I look after the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) social media pages (Twitter & Facebook) and try to keep my eye out for postdocs and faculty jobs to share with our followers. We also post jobs on our website and through the mailing list too.

In general, if you are not already doing so, Twitter is one of the best places for spotting jobs and networking with other scientists – get onto it!

#### Please feel free to suggest other funding opportunities for postdocs in NZ & Australia and I’ll add them to the list here! ####





When weapons collide: attempting to understand how exaggerated traits evolve and diversify

It’s been a very exciting week for me, and not just because I am writing this in between thunderstorms while doing field work up in the beautiful Genting Highlands of Malaysia. The results of the Marsden Fund were announced this week in New Zealand and one of the successful projects was one that I was involved in writing, with Greg Holwell as PI, on the evolution of animal weaponry. The best part is that there will be a postdoctoral position available for me back at the University of Auckland next year. It has been a really fun year so far in Singapore, but it hasn’t been so easy for my husband to find work and he is keen to head back to NZ to return to his job there. As any early career scientist can understand, it is hard to find a balance between getting research experience abroad and staying close to partners and family. We made a choice early on to stick together and had recently decided to move back to NZ once my first year at NUS was up, despite not being sure what 2016 would have in store for me professionally. With all this in mind, the timing of our success in the Marsden fund couldn’t be more perfect!

Our project aims to understand more about why weapons are so diverse in animals and will be focused on a fantastic group of invertebrates: the long-legged harvestmen (Opiliones: Neopilionidae) of New Zealand. These curious looking arachnids are found throughout the wet forests of NZ, usually hanging out on mossy tree trunks, on the underside of fallen trees, or in caves. Harvestmen are a type of arachnid, and are often mistakenly identified as a spider, but are actually more closely related to scorpions. Harvestmen can be distinguished from spiders in that their bodies look to be made up of just a single oval-shaped structure, due to the broad fusion between their cephalothorax and abdomen. Spiders on the other hand have a distinctive constriction between their cephalothorax and abdomen. If you want to look really closely you will also notice that harvestmen have just a single pair of tiny eyes on the middle top surface of their body, while spiders have a numerous eyes of varying sizes arranged on the front of their head area (cephalothorax).

Two species of harvestmen from New Zealand highlighting the diversity in chelicerae form

Two species of harvestmen from New Zealand highlighting the diversity in chelicerae form

One of the most striking aspects of the long-legged harvestmen in New Zealand are their hugely enlarged jaws, called chelicerae, that are held out in front of their bodies and look rather terrifying if you didn’t know that they are completely harmless. There are at least a dozen species within this family in New Zealand, and there is a fascinating array of shapes and sizes of chelicerae among the species. In some species the chelicerae are very long and skinny, while in others they are enormous, bulbous and spiny.


A male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Wairata near the East Cape of NZ

All arachnids have chelicerae, and in spiders they house the venom glands used during prey capture. Harvestmen, however, have no venom glands and their chelicerae instead are used to cut up their food into nice little bite-sized pieces that they then gobble up. From experience of handling lots of these creatures, I can tell you that the little pincer structures on the tips of the chelicerae are so small and weak that at worst they can give you a cute little nip. It doesn’t hurt and it certainly won’t harm you.

They may look scary but the jaws on these guys are quite harmless...unless you are a (already dead) fly!

They may look scary but the jaws on these guys are quite harmless…unless you are a (already dead) fly!

The use of these chelicerae for food handling is unlikely to explain why they are so huge among NZ harvestmen. Interestingly, in this group it is only the males of each species that have mammoth* chelicerae; females have small, “normal-sized” jaws. This kind of sexual dimorphism is often driven by strong selection on males to evolve structures that allow them to compete with other males, with the ultimate goal to be able to mate with a nearby female.

A female harvestmen with reduced chelicerae

A female harvestmen with reduced chelicerae

Sexual selection, a special type of natural selection where traits evolve to increase an individual’s ability to get more mating opportunities, works under two main mechanisms: intersexual selection where females choose male mates based on their quality or something that they can provide the female (like feeding or egg-laying sites), or intrasexual selection based on direct competition between males for access to females. When there is an imbalance in the reproductive success among males in a species, say because some males are better at gaining the attention of a female or can secure better resources, then this can drive the evolution of traits that increase the success of those disadvantaged males.

The most well-known examples of traits that a male uses to increase its reproductive success are called ornaments. A classic example would be the bright, flashy colours of a peacock’s train that females use to actively choose the best mates. Alternatively, males can bear weapons, such as horns, spines, claws or big teeth that allow them to physically battle with other males. When the disparity in reproductive success between males is really large this can lead to intense competition, which in turn drives strong selection for ever increasingly large weapons that allow males to win fights and more mating opportunities.

My intro slide from Behaviour2015 showing some of my favourite animal weapons

My intro slide from Behaviour2015 showing some of my favourite animal weapons

Scientists have been fascinated with the evolution of exaggerated traits for decades, and we know a lot about the costs and benefits of ornaments and weapons to the males that bear them. However, we still don’t really understand why there is so much diversity in the function and morphology of weapons. In a symposium on animal weapons and competitive assessment** that I recently co-organised at the Behaviour 2015 conference in Cairns, I noticed that although researchers from around the world are working on very different animal systems, we seem to be collectively in awe of the sheer diversity of weaponry (their shape, size, number and presence) both within and among the species we like most. Particularly for groups of closely related species we might expect to see similar adaptations for weaponry because there should be some ideal form that the structure takes that make them ideal for use during fights. However, this is not what we see; even among groups of very closely related species we see an incredible variety of weapons displayed by males, including some species within those groups that don’t have weapons at all.

Dung beetles in the genus Onthophagus are perhaps the best group to highlight this pattern. There are several thousand of different species, of which many display enlarged horns used in fights to control access to tunnels under dung pads where females lay their eggs. There is a staggering amount of variation in the way horns are expressed in this group, with some species producing a single horn from different parts of head or thorax, while others are tiny multi-horned little tanks.

Just one of the many beautiful species of horned Onthophagus beetles (Photo credit: Udo Schmidt)

Just one of the many beautiful species of horned Onthophagus beetles (Photo credit: Udo Schmidt)

Our observations on one species of harvestmen, Pantopsalis cheliferoides, suggest that the main driver of big male chelicerae is through sexual selection, which we discuss in our latest paper out this week in Scientific Reports. During my postdoc with Greg Holwell we set out, with honours students Anna Probert and Daniel Townsend, to gain some basic observational data to confirm our hypothesis that males are using their chelicerae as weapons. In the lab we watched males fighting between each other, firstly in a ritualized manner where they unfolded and extended their chelicerae and waved them rapidly in front of their rival. In more escalated battles the opponents would clash together and tumble about until one male chose to run away.

The most exciting finding from our study though, was that we identified a new type of trimorphism in weapon form. In other animals, it is common to observe huge amounts of variation in size among males, often related to the condition of the individual. In another species of harvestmen, Serracutisoma proximum, found in south-eastern Brazil, there are two distinct male forms (dimorphism): “majors”, which have big bodies and elongated second legs used in territorial fights, and “minors”, which have smaller bodies, shorter legs, and creep into another male’s territory to mate with his female. Males are assigned to either morph in relation to their body size, a trend seen across many other animal species where males possess big armaments. Male dimorphism and the alternative behaviours associated with weapon expression, have been identified in numerous harvestmen species around the world. So, although less well-known than their spider cousins, the harvestmen make excellent model systems for learning more about weapon evolution.


Majors fighting2 Incredible male harvestmen (Serracutisoma proximum) fighting with elongated legs (Photos used with permission from Bruno Buzatto)

Recently researchers working on other invertebrates have found examples of trimorphism in weaponry, meaning that there are three weapon forms, which can be similarly divided up by looking at the relationship between weapon and body size. Several species of beetle and weta have been shown to have trimorphic males, but little is known about why this polymorphism has evolved and how the behavioural tactics vary between the different male groups. In all known examples of dimorphism and trimorphism in weapons, however, males are split into armed and unarmed groups in relation to their body size, such that small males typically have small weapons (or none at all) while large males have the exaggerated form.

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) like this one here have enlarged mandibles, but there are actually three different male morphs with varying degrees of mandible exaggeration. (Photo by: Tony Wills)

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) like this one here have enlarged mandibles (jaws). However, there are actually three different male morphs with varying degrees of mandible exaggeration. (Photo by: Tony Wills)

In our current study, we found that body size was associated with weapon size, in that small males had small chelicerae, and large males had large chelicerae. However, using statistical modelling of different measures of weapon size and how this related to body size, we found that big males could display one of two different exaggerated forms. The most common males that we found in the forests around Waitomo had very long, thin chelicerae that were more than 8 times longer than their bodies are wide. A second morph was smaller in body size with correspondingly small but long chelicerae. Amazingly, we also found a third, rarer subset of males that were large in body size, but displayed short, broad chelicerae. Although shorter in length, these chelicerae are still highly exaggerated, but have enlarged in the opposite direction than the males with long, slender chelicerae. This finding is really fascinating, because we don’t know of any other examples of multiple exaggerated weapon forms within a single species. In all other armed species, males can be divided into a group of males with enlarged weapons and another group of males that lack weapons altogether or have a much reduced form. Our early behavioural observations suggest that the shape of the chelicerae may correspond to different fighting tactics, but we have a lot to learn about the relative advantages of being a male with long slender versus short broad weapons.

Three male morphs of Pantopsalis cheliferoides with different investment in chelicerae size and shape. Illustrations by Emma Scheltema

Three male morphs of Pantopsalis cheliferoides with different investment in chelicerae size and shape. Illustrations by Emma Scheltema

Now that we have the funding to extend this study, I’m really looking forward to being able to explore more about this unique form of trimorphism and what it might be able to tell us about how weapons diverge. While we know from numerous studies on a diverse range of animals that bigger males with increasingly big weapons win fights, we don’t know the role of shape in battle performance. As nicely shown by our group of long-legged harvestmen in NZ, there is often incredible variation in weapon shape among different species. The within-species variation in weapon shape shown by Pantopsalis cheliferoides, however, gives us an invaluable opportunity to figure out the role of weapon shape and how this might lead to divergence.


* Interestingly, Doug Emlen, an expert on animal weapons, says that although mammoth tusks were undeniably huge, they only made up about 6% of the animal’s body mass. The chelicerae in the harvestmen that we are working on make up about 50% of a male’s body weight, making these weapons some of the most extreme in the animal kingdom!

** On a side note, at the Behaviour 2015 conference it was also really neat to see how many people are now using Twitter to swap stories about the talks and posters they attend. Actually, when I was a bit bored between experiments I counted them and there were 95 tweets about the weapon and contest symposium! You can check out all the tweets from the conference at #behave15.

Further reading:

Painting et al 2015. Multiple exaggerated weapon morphs: a novel form of male polymorphism in harvestmen. Scientific Reports. 5, 16368; doi: 10.1038/srep16368.

If you are interested in weapons you should read Doug Emlen’s new book “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle“. In the book Doug explains the prerequisite conditions that lead to the evolution of weaponry. As well as many careful and detailed explanations about the theoretical aspects of weapon evolution, supported by wonderful examples of armed animals from around the world, Doug also throws in lots of great anecdotes from his adventures as a biologist, including stories of his time as a graduate student which saw him picking through howler monkey dung in search of tiny horned dung beetles. And because I often feel that the minibeasts of the world tend to get neglected in documentaries and public media, I appreciated that Doug showcased lots of examples of weaponry in insects and other invertebrates. It’s a fabulous book written for anyone with an interest in biology and I can highly recommend it.

Incredibly long chelicerae on a male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Waitomo

Incredibly long chelicerae on a male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Waitomo