Voting for the FIRST ever NZ Bug of Year has started!

The day all of us bug enthusiasts have been waiting for has finally arrived. It is time to vote for Aotearoa’s Bug of the year 2023. Our lab group cannot wait to get our votes in for next years winner… The NZ Giraffe Weevil, obviously. Unfortunately the competition is quite stiff so the giraffe weevil may only win by the tip of their long nose.

To ensure our favourite crosses the finish line first we have dedicated a special page to showing off how iconic the giraffe weevil is. So if you want to bask in the giraffe weevil’s glory or simply test the confidence you have in your favourite bug’s chances go to our BoTY page.

As you can see from just a few #Bugoftheyear2023 tweets this is going to be one nail-biting competition and the giraffe weevil will really have to pull out all the stops to convert it’s naysayers. If you would like to help us get the giraffe weevil into the winners circle, join our campaign on twitter using the hashtag #TeamGiraffeWeevil or click here to vote.

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

Michaela & Lara complete their Masters degrees!

We recently celebrated the completion of the first two MSc students based in the Invertebrate Ecology lab at the University of Waikato – an epic achievement given the current, ah, world situation that doesn’t need an introduction. Despite the challenges that Michaela and Lara faced while trying to do research during a pandemic, they both pulled off interesting, creative and novel research.

Michaela’s thesis focused on sexual selection in the New Zealand giraffe weevil by looking at the effects of population density on mating dynamics and the size-dependent investment into pre- and post-copulatory traits. Michaela did lots of fine-scale morphometrics to look at how males of different sizes invest into traits like sperm, testes and aedeagus size, as well as sperm volume. Here, the main findings were that postcopulatory traits showed negative allometry, demonstrating that small males have relatively long sperm and big testes compared to large males. This investment may mean that small males invest more into traits that give them a better chance at fertilising a female’s eggs, rather than weaponry that would help them gain mating opportunities. This makes sense when considering the behavioural ecology of the species where small males sneak copulations while large males rely on fighting tactics. However, Michaela also found that sperm concentration was much higher in large males, which was surprising given that theory predicts that small males at higher risk of sperm competition should invest more into ejaculates. Michaela’s findings raise lots of questions about the interaction between pre- and post-copulatory traits in the NZ giraffe weevils, some of which we hope to solve using behavioural observations paired with paternity analyses.

Michaela doing dissections of teeny little giraffe weevil genitalia

 Michaela was also able to tackle the question of how population density interacts with body size to influence mating success across male giraffe weevils. Using a large dataset of field observations that Chrissie collected during her PhD way back in 2011/2012, Michaela was able to confirm that body size in conjunction with temporal fluctuations in population density and sex ratio have an important effect on the mating dynamics of giraffe weevils within a natural population.

Male giraffe weevils fighting with their long rostra

Lara’s thesis also investigated contest behaviour, but used Teleogryllus commodus crickets to tease apart factors that affect decision making during fights. Game theory has had a long history of application to animal contests, but many previous studies that have tried to determine how individuals decide when to withdrawal from a contest have found inconclusive results. Lara used a series of elegant lab experiments to address whether there was variation among individuals in the assessment strategy employed, and whether personality could explain this population variation. In addition she also looked at whether the individuals themselves switch their assessment strategy part-way through a contest, which has been found in several previous studies.

Teleogryllus commodus (Photo credit: Ghouston, Wiki Commons)

Firstly, Lara set up a series of four behavioural assays that were used to determine if this cricket shows evidence of personality. This meant LOTS of assays because each cricket needed to do all four assays three times each, and she had lots of different individuals. A whole lot of lab work later showed that T. commodus indeed shows evidence of personality, where individuals showed consistent reactions to different situations like being put into a novel environment or faced with a simulated predator. However, she didn’t find evidence of a behavioural syndrome that linked behaviour across each assay type.

Lara’s experimental set up for 4 different behavioural assays to measure personality & behavioural syndrome

To figure out whether there was variation among individuals in the type of assessment strategy used during fights, Lara set up another series of behavioural experiments. She first ran a set of males through three bouts of a novel environment assay to quantify repeatability of exploratory behaviour for each individual. After that, each focal male was paired with 5 different opponents in a series of repeated contests that were then analysed using a new framework proposed by Kenneth Chapin and colleagues in their recent paper in Behavioral Ecology. Lara found evidence of variation in assessment strategy across the population, with some individuals using self assessment, and others using mutual assessment. She also found that individuals are likely to be able to switch assessment strategy as contests escalate to more intense physical fights. However, there was no evidence that personality affected the strategy that individuals used during fights.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Lara’s research was that it was inspired by discussions in the postgraduate Animal Behaviour class that I convene. Rene (also in the lab!) chose to discuss an interesting paper by Gabriel Lobregat and colleagues that looked at assessment strategy switching during contests. This led to further chats between Lara and I and a whole new project came out of it! One of the best part of teaching a postgrad paper is the chance to read more widely across the behaviour literature and be inspired to chase new project ideas, and it’s great to see what students choose to bring to discuss.

Thanks a lot to our collaborators across the globe who we worked closely with on these projects, who are all super clever early career researchers! Big ups to Dr Ummat Somjee (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), Dr Zac Wylde (University of New South Wales), Dr Chia-chen Chang (UC Davis), and Dr Paulo Enrique Cardoso Peixoto (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais).