University of Waikato 2019

I’m very excited to be moving to the University of Waikato in Hamilton mid-2019 to start my own lab! From Semester 2 I’ll be teaching the third year undergraduate and postgraduate Animal Behaviour courses so looking forward to putting together an engaging curriculum. Also, I’ll be seeking postgrad students to join my lab, so if you are interested in the behavioural ecology of New Zealand arthropods, please get in touch! I have several projects in mind but also welcome new ideas from prospective students too, especially those that might use behavioural approaches applied to conservation challenges. I aim to build a welcoming, collaborative, and fun lab to work in so if that sounds like you then get in touch and tell me about your interests.

University of Waikato campus (photo from

Our little family is in Hamilton this weekend looking at real estate and getting excited about the big move. We’ve lived in several cities over the years, but this is the first time we feel like we can put down roots and so it is really fun looking around different suburbs and thinking about where our 1 year old will call home.

Discovering the river walk along the mighty Waikato in Hamilton

Proximity to great playgrounds a priority when house hunting with kids

Been a little busy…

It’s been over 8 months since my last post but I’ve got a fairly good excuse! My first baby was born in October last year and has been keeping me very busy as I learn to be a mum to this very busy little boy.  I started back at work part-time in May and have quickly gained a new perspective about the difficulty of balancing life as a mum and keeping up with my research. I’ve got lots of thoughts to share with you about this, but so little time to write at the moment that I’ll save that for a future blog post.

Until then!

Arlo and I in the bush June 2018

Getting some nature time 




Stories about a colourful, ant-mimicking spider from South East Asia

Stories about a colourful, ant-mimicking spider from South East Asia

Happy #arachtober everyone! A whole month to celebrate the wonderful world of spiders and other arachnids. Arachnid lovers on Twitter are busy posting photos of their favourite beasties, spreading their passion for these often-feared animals.

Given this, it seemed auspicious timing for the publication of our natural history note on the bizarre feeding behaviour by the jumping spider, Orsima ichnueumon.

My favourite part of being a biologist are the exploratory trips to new places to find creatures you’ve never worked on before. There’s always an element of self-doubt that you’ll not find what you’re looking for, but the effort can be rewarded with a rush of euphoria when you first spot your animal. During these first observations in the wild you start to build a mental picture of the animal’s subtle habitat requirements and the way they behave. Often it’s during these first observations that you realise several of the  ideas that you came up with while sitting at your desk are total rubbish, but it’s an exciting time to start formulating new questions based on what you see happening in front of you.


Looking towards Kuala Lumpur from the Genting Highlands during one of our research trips to Malaysia (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

The story we just published in Frontiers in Ecology & Enviroment is based on one of these exciting first observations of a species doing something unexpected.

I became fascinated by O. ichnuemon during my postdoc in Singapore, where I was working on the evolution of colour in jumping spiders. This mesmerizing little species is closely related to several South East Asian jumping spiders that have been the focus of Daiqin Li’s behavioural ecology group. Much of the work has been done on Cosmophasis umbratica, the males of which use elaborate dances to display to potential mates and foes, flashing their iridescent and ultra-violet colours.

Two males fighting

Two male Cosmophasis umbratica in battle (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

Unlike their sister species C. umbratica, O. ichnuemon is rarely observed and almost nothing is known about its natural history. Not only does O. ichnuemon display an impressive array of colours, but they also look rather ant-like in their movement and body shape. Elongated spinnerets (silk-laying structures) extending from their abdomen look like antennae and mouthparts, and the deep constriction in the male’s abdomen gives the appearance of an extra body part to look like an ant with head, thorax and abdomen. These adaptations, in combination with the way they move their body while walking, fool the observer (of the human-kind at least) into thinking they are watching an ant move backwards.

Orsima male_Sideview3

A male Orsima ichneumon – it’s head is facing towards the right, on the left you can see the elongated antennae and mouthpart-like spinnerets extending from the spider’s abdomen (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

myrmarachne sp

Myrmarachne maxillosa, a common ant-mimic in Singapore (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

While many invertebrates make easy pickings for predators, ants are often avoided because of their nasty tempers and ability to inflict damage when under attack. For this reason hundreds of insects and spiders mimic ants using an impressive spectrum of ant-like body shapes, structures and behaviour. However, unlike O. ichnuemon, most ant mimics are typically dark brown, red or black, matching the colour of most ants (although there are colourful ants!).

So began my obsession with this little spider!

I began plotting experiments and got excited about working on a relatively unknown species. I was interested in trying to figure out whether Orsima are really fooling potential predators into perceiving them to be dangerous ant prey and what elements of their mimicry were helping them avoid being eaten. At the same time, I also wanted to figure out the role of the complex colours displayed by Orsima, and whether the colours help them to attract mates or repel male competitors, ward off predators as warning colours, or perhaps some combination of both.

Of course, the first challenge to kicking off a project like this is to find your species in the wild. Fortunately a student in the Li lab had spotted them before in the hills above Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and so I was able to use his locations to begin my search.

With luck, on the first trip to the University of Malaya Gombak Field Station we were able to find a surprising abundance of Orsima wandering around on forest-edge shrubs. From this my very productive Honour’s student, Renee, was able to do a series of experiments and observations to start teasing apart the possible reasons why Orsima are so colourful.

In the lab Renee staged interactions between either two males or a male and a female to observe the types of behaviours they perform. Jumping spiders have incredible visual acuity, so they tend to be highly responsive to the presence of another spider.

Renee was able to record 28 major elements of behaviour that Orsima perform during courtship or male-male fighting interactions. She found that males had a more complex repertoire of dance and fight moves than females, and that during these displays males would show off their colourful patches by waving their abdomen, palps and legs. Her work has just been published in a really nice paper that painstakingly describes each behavioural element, coupled with lovely photos. Renee went on to do some neat experiments manipulating the colour of the male’s abdomen to test if this changed the response of female spiders and predators. More on that in coming months!

Locked in battle

Two male Orsima in combat with outstretched legs and wide-open jaws (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

6e bent

A male O. ichneumon raises, bends and waves his colourful abdomen during courtship and male-male fights (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

While Renee was busy in the lab, Caleb and I headed off on a second trip to the Gombak Field Station to find more Orsima, with plans for further observations and experiments. We picked up our hire car from KL airport and attempted to navigate our way up the winding roads leading up to the field station on the route to the Genting Highlands.

Unfortunately we managed to time our visit during a very rainy November, and on the night before our arrival several landslips had blocked off the road into the field station. We scratched our heads at the roadblock above the field station trying to decide what to do. As any field biologist knows, a lot of money and time is spent planning these trips, and we didn’t want to have to go back to Singapore without seeing our spiders.

Luckily we had found other locations nearby with very similar vegetation in our previous trip, so we headed over in hope of finding Orsima there. In the tropics, ants are the most dominant insect seen foraging on trees, so it is quite tricky to spot Orsima spiders among them, despite their bright colours. It wasn’t long, however, before we found several Orsima scurrying around on the leaves of a common roadside shrub.

It was here that we spotted the behaviour that we wrote about in our short note for Frontiers in Ecology & Environment. We watched a female Orsima patrolling around on a single tree leaf, where she appeared to be walking between a bunch of little raised discs scattered over the leaf surface, and dipping her head down to feed. At the time, I didn’t know that we were looking at extra-floral nectaries (EFN’s), tiny nectar-filled structures produced by the plant to attract ants. EFN’s are considered a mutualism between the plant and ants, because the plant receives the benefit of reduced herbivory by insect pests (like munching grasshoppers), while the ants receive a reliable source of food.

Not only did we notice that Orsima were feeding on these nectaries, we also watched as they performed a little ceremonial dance after each feeding bout. The spider would walk over the depleted nectary and then waggle it’s abdomen from side to side, leaving behind a patch of silk next to the nectary.

Over the next few hours, we watched several Orsima doing the same behaviour. The spider would remain on the same leaf surface, appearing to be guarding that particular patch of nectaries. The many ants also found on the same tree were also feeding on the nectaries, but they wandered from leaf to leaf, sampling from each nectary on their path. We noticed that the Orsima would sometimes chase away an ant competitor that arrived onto their leaf, and once we even spotted an ant trip over in the little silk patch that the spider had laid around the nectary. We started to wonder if these silk fences were acting as mini barricades to repel ants from foraging on the nectaries.

Orsima laying silk around nectary

A female Orsima laying a patch of silk around an extra-floral nectary (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

Orsima nectaries with silk and ant

Orsima moves aside when a large Polyrhachis ant arrives to forage on the nectaries. On the lower right of the leaf you can see distinct silk patches next to the nectaries (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

We thought we’d witnessed something unusual, but it wasn’t until we were back in the lab chatting to our colleagues that we started to figure out how unique the guarding behaviour was. We don’t know of any other spiders that do this strange silk-laying dance after foraging on a nectary.

It’s special because spiders are almost always considered to be carnivores that may occasionally supplement their diet with plant nectar. We’ve seen Orsima hunting small insects in the wild so we know they aren’t strict vegetarians, but it was still hard for us to explain why they would spend time and energy guarding the nectaries and using up silk if this was a small part of their diet.

To be successful mimics Orsima may need to hang out in close vicinity to the ants they resemble so that they can fool potential predators and go under the radar. However, a large number of ants foraging on these trees are also likely to reduce the numbers of potential insect prey for Orsima, meaning less food availability. Although speculation at this stage, we propose that Orsima may offset the costs of fewer prey by guarding the energy-rich nectaries from ant competitors.

We’re looking forward to working further on Orsima to keep teasing apart their fascinating natural history.

To get the full run down of our work on Orsima so far, check out these free to access publications:

Painting, C. J., C. C. Nicholson, M. W. Bulbert, Y. Norma-Rashid, D. Li (2017) Nectary feeding and guarding behaviour by a tropical jumping spider. Frontiers in Ecology & Environment 15: 469-470. Link

Huixin, R. W.*, Y. Norma-Rashid, D. Li, C. J. Painting (2017) Courtship and male-male interaction behaviour of Orsima ichneumon, an ant-mimicking jumper spider (Arachnida: Salticidae). Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 65: 426-439. Link

Orsima ichneumon

A female O. ichnuemon showing off her beautiful colours. Could a spider be any more beautiful? (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

Reflections following the women in science conference

Last week I attended the Association for Women in the Sciences conference. The triennial meeting happened to be in Auckland this year, so I thought it was a great opportunity to head along and hear from a wide range of women in science. Here are a few things that stood out, as well as some thoughts that came to mind during the meeting.girlboss


My favourite talk of the meeting was from Alexia Hilbertidou, founder of GirlBoss New Zealand. Alexia was the second speaker (following the wonderful Jean Fleming) in a session reflecting on change over time in the role of women in science in New Zealand. I’ve rarely seen speakers with such commanding stage presence and passion, and it was hard to believe that 18 year old Alexia has not long finished high school. Feeling isolated as the only girl in her Digital Tech and Physics classes, Alexia was motivated to form a network of young women connected through their love of science and tech. Now with over 8000 members nationwide, Alexia and her team organise leadership workshops and other initiatives aimed at empowering young women to succeed in STEM.

Alexia has a vision for New Zealand to become the first to close the gender gap in science. In another talk at AWIS we heard from Natasha Lewis from the Ministry for Women, who reported a recent study into the 12% pay gap between women and men in the science sector.  Alexia’s appeal to close the gap might sound like a lofty idea, but seriously, this inspiring woman has already achieved so much at 18. There’s hope!

women pay gap

Natasha Lewis (Ministry for Women) opening talk slide at AWIS 2017

It’s sometimes hard to know how we can affect change to improve diversity in science and promote kindness in our workplaces. One way you can help out is to put your name forward to volunteer, mentor and sponsor for future GirlBoss events. There are lots of women doing great science in New Zealand but we need to be visible to young women coming up the ranks so that they know they have a place among us.

Event sponsorship policies (increasing event diversity)

I was really interested to hear from Kate Hannah and Siouxsie Wiles of Te Punaha Matatini, outline their policy for sponsoring events. Before agreeing to sponsor an event they have clear guidelines for how they expect events to be organised. These include ensuring conferences are both gender and culturally diverse among keynote speakers and clear advertisement of an anti-harassment policy on the event website. Their website links to a very helpful resource which offers lots of fantastic examples of how conference organisers can make their meetings more diverse. All conference organisers in NZ should check this out!

Here are some of my favourite suggestions for organising great meetings:

  • Having the option for delegates to pay a little more to help sponsor attendance for underrepresented groups
  • Seek sponsorship to support scholarships for underrepresented groups to attend (could you include a grant for supporting women to bring a support person to do childcaring while at the meeting?)
  • Don’t realise your speaker lineup is 100% white male, ask a couple of women to get involved last minute and then be surprised/blame them when they decline
  • Display a code of conduct for your event predominantly on your website, mention it at the start of the event and make people agree to take part (e.g. when buying tickets).
  • Talk to tangata whenua early on in event organisation to ask them to be involved (e.g. welcome address, karakia etc.)
  • Train your organising committee on your code of conduct, get someone to keep an eye on the Twitter feed and have someone listening in to each talk so they can respond to any concerns.
  • Have a breastfeeding room. Not a public bathroom! Somewhere private with an electrical outlet. Even better would be a room with a sink to wash out bottles and a fridge to store milk (if you really want to go the extra mile!)
  • Have gender-neutral bathrooms

Getting allies to speak up against sexism

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we can get male allies to support us in calling out sexism (and racism, transphobia etc). A column in the New York Times last week by the fabulous Lindy West made a call to male allies to loudly call out sexism when they hear it, and not meekly stand by while women deal with further abuse when standing up for themselves. It’s not easy to stand up against sexism and risk being ostracized by friends, but it’s not enough to just not take part in the conservation or ignore it.

Ways to tackle discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace were discussed at the AWIS meeting. For younger women, particularly in situations where there is a power issue at play, it might be a good idea to find a trusted senior person to talk to. Building a support network to be able to vent after a buildup of daily microaggressions can also be useful for sharing stories and building strength. A great suggestion for responding to offensive comments immediately was to say ‘I can’t believe you just said that out loud’. This calls attention to the comment without directly telling them they’re being inappropriate, but (hopefully) making them think about what they said.

Mobility issues for ECRs

We talked a bit at AWIS about the leaky pipeline (or perhaps more accurately described as broken plumbing) and issues with retaining women in science. Given my precarious position as a postdoc on a fixed term contract, this discussion resonated with me a lot.

I think one of the many factors affecting the leaky pipeline is the expectation for postdocs to head abroad (and often move multiple times to different countries) to have a successful career in academia. Of course going abroad for a postdoc is hugely beneficial in terms of increased collaboration opportunities and learning new skills, as well as being personally beneficial by increasing cultural awareness. However, although issues with mobility can affect anyone,  the expectation to move abroad can be particularly limiting to women. This is especially so for women who are starting postdocs at the same time as considering having kids.

Although I did go overseas for one year to do a postdoc in Singapore, I made the decision to end my contract at least one year earlier than intended to return to the same lab that I did my PhD in. My former supervisor had just won a big grant that we’d been working on for years, on which I was the named postdoc. Moving home to NZ seemed sensible for several reasons, including that my partner didn’t find work in Singapore, therefore putting strain on us financially and him personally (being my unpaid lab slave eventually wore thin). We also wanted to return home to start a family close to our support network. I’m quite certain this has been frowned upon by colleagues, but we made the decision that worked best for us as a unit, and I don’t think my research output will be negatively affected by this choice (and I’m lucky that I had that choice anyway!). Surely the experiences picked up from doing longer term postdocs could be almost equally acquired from doing short term lab visits, training workshops and attending international conferences?

A recent article in eLIFE that discusses issues with mobility during postdoc years can be accessed freely here.

Thanks to the organisers of AWIS for a thought provoking and inspiring meeting!

The importance of having a strong web presence for ECR’s

Towards the end of 2016 the Holwell lab had a special visitor, Dr James O’Hanlon from Macquarie University, a behavioural ecologist who’s most well-known for his work on deception in the elusive orchid mantis, as well as his uncanny ability to make a study species just disappear when you go into the field with him. Magic!

Anyway, while James was here he was roped in to giving a workshop on Science Communication for the department, and Lizzy Lowe and I jumped on-board to give him a hand.


As part of this, I did a presentation about why I think it is important, particularly for early career researchers (ECR’s), to have a strong web presence. I also gave some suggestions about ways you can build up your web presence, through a personal website as well as social media.

Personal websites 

My main suggestion was that all ECR’s should have their own personal website that is hosted away from their current institute. Many of us have university profile pages which have some contact details and maybe a list of our recent publications, but these are often difficult to update yourself and you have little control over the content that is included. Perhaps most importantly, as ECR’s we tend to change institutes in  between our degrees, postdocs and periods of unemployment, so we need a site that we can carry with us.

Luckily, it is super easy to set up your own website without any background in programming, and often for free. There are lots of platforms out there and it is worth asking around to get opinions on the best one, but options like WordPress, Weebly and Wix are all popular choices among scientists. Squarespace also has excellent options, but does charge monthly to use.I started off with a GoogleSites page, but after a while found it a bit clunky and didn’t really like the style of my page there. Most of the above platforms have a bunch of free templates that you can use to build your site from. When you sign up for an account you will be invited to browse the templates until you find one you like, and then you can customise it by adding and naming your pages, and filling in some text and photos. I found WordPress largely intuitive to follow, and when I couldn’t work it out I would google for help.

Alex Bond has some more detailed tips about deciding on a web platform, including making the decision where to host your site. I didn’t really think about this before I built my website and wish I had of done a little bit of reading first! I chose the easy option of doing it through which means I lack some flexibility, but on the flipside it is very easy to quickly whip up a blog post or add my latest paper.

The benefits of having your own website 

For me, the most important reason to have your own website (and to engage in a few other web platforms too) is to be easily contactable. As a postdoc I’m still  building my connections and raising my research profile, so I want people to be able to find me easily. Potential employers and collaborators may google you to get more information and you want to make it easy for them to find out all the good stuff about you. Having a website also allows you to be accessible to a wide range of other people including journalists (e.g. your local radio station might be looking for scientists to comment on issues or do interviews about general science topics), the public (outreach opportunities), and conference organisers (people looking for contributors to symposia). Another common reason I would need to visit the webpage of an ECR is to get their contact details for nominating them to review manuscripts (I always suggest at least one ECR when I submit an MS for review). If you haven’t already, try googling yourself and see what pops up on the first page!

The essential components of your website

The best part about having your own page is that you can do with it whatever you like. I love browsing through fellow scientists websites and seeing the various ways they make their personality come through onto the screen.

Regardless of the flexibility there are few things that make for a  great website:

  • Your contact details! Make these easy to find so people can get in touch with you. Include your email address and the institute you currently affiliate with.
  • An about me section that outlines your current position, research interests and projects
  • A photo of yourself. Particularly useful for figuring out who people in your departmental tearoom are, or being able to spot that person you want to meet at a conference.
  • A list of your works like journal articles, book chapters and so on. I like to include a link to the paper on the journal’s page, and even better is to provide a preprint copy that someone can click to download without going through a paywall.

That’s it, those are the essentials. If you are really new to research you could have all of that one a single page and then add more later once your career advances.

Other good stuff to include on your website

  • Links to media articles that have featured your research
  • Multimedia like videos that you’ve made about your research (like these awesome animations by Josie Galbraith), or yourself giving a lecture or public talk
  • A gallery of photos that relate to your research (or something else you are passionate about)
  • Links to other professional networks like your Google Scholar profile, Twitter etc.
  • Details about your teaching experience & philosophy
  • A list of potential projects if you are looking to recruit students
  • A blog page (see discussion here about whether you should start a blog)
  • Details about other things you do other than science – drawing? photography? book club? Eurovision?

Some tips when putting your site together

It’s a good idea to keep in mind who your audience is when you make a website, especially if you decide to include a blog. If you do decide to blog realise that you have to post pieces fairly regularly to make it worth your time and gain a following.

In general make sure your site is simple and clean, easy to navigate, and up to date. If you treat it like your online CV then you’ll make sure to always update your website when you get a new paper or your work gets covered in the media. Keep your themes and fonts the same throughout so it is nice for your reader to look at.

Once you have your site together you’ll need to make sure people actually visit it. Include links to your site on everything! Your email signature, CV, conference talks, Twitter page and your GoogleScholar profile (see below).

Other platforms to promote yourself on

As well as building your own website, you may find it useful to engage with people across a range of other platforms. Get to know the most common platforms in your field and sign up for an account. I usually try to entice people back to my webpage anyway (e.g. from LinkedIn, Twitter etc.) because I keep that most up to date.

GoogleScholar: Of all of the platforms, I think it is most important to have a GoogleScholar profile. They are really easy to set up, and are so useful as a point of reference for finding publications by a particular researcher. If you are not already familiar with GoogleScholar, it is a list of all your publications with links to the articles themselves, the number of times each work is cited, your H-index, and a list of your co-authors. The profiles aren’t without a few issues (like when they include articles from 1950 that you most definitely didn’t write given you weren’t born yet), but overall, they are pretty useful. You can also set up alerts to keep track of when your own papers are cited, or when your favourite authors publish a new paper.

Twitter: There is already loads of information online about the pros of engaging with your science community online via Twitter. One point I will mention is that Twitter is a great way of raising your profile, especially when you are actively engaging in conversations. Last year I had around 1000 hits on my website that were directed from Twitter, which means that I must have said enough weird stuff online that people were curious enough to click through to my website. Another 1000 hits were from Facebook, which is probably because I also promote my blog to my friends and family there. I find this really neat as it means that I am connecting with people about science beyond my immediate academic community.

Look for inspiration 

When I was putting together my website I looked around to see what other scientists were including on their sites. One day I would like to update my site further and add some more cool stuff, but for now I aim to keep it fairly clean and simple. Look around at your colleagues sites and see what you like and what you would rather not include. I particularly like Mike Kasumovic lab website because it is so creative and visually appealing, but I also really love the more simple approach by Megan Friesen. On both of those sites it is really obvious what their research interests are.

You can have a look at the slides from my presentation below:




When procastination can mean more creativity

This morning on my bus ride to work I was kicking back admiring the view of  Auckland city and as I always do, was listening to a podcast. Being the start of yet another month in a year that is flying by I had that familiar feeling of panic that I haven’t completed even a quarter of the tasks I had hoped to by this time*. So it was a happy coincidence that I tuned into this TED radio hour podcast, which addressed the things we can learn from slowing down and procrastinating (yes, that’s right, procrastinating!).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much time I spend doing productive/active tasks like field work, analysing data, or writing a manuscript. Most of my days are made up of these tasks in addition to all the other little things that make up an academic’s life, like replying to emails, reviewing manuscripts and sitting on committees (and let’s face it, extended tea breaks). While one day is never the same by the end of the week I feel like I’ve been going from one task to another, always in a bit of a hurry and never really taking the time to step back and think about where my research is going. Most weeks could be considered productive because I am usually moving projects forward (even just a little), but I’m not really allowing myself to think about the bigger picture and make longer term plans for new projects. The largest part of my anxiety at work comes from the fear of not having the biggest and best ideas to develop into large-scale projects. It could be that I’m just not a very creative person, but perhaps (hopefully) this could be greatly improved by setting aside time to develop those little inklings into big ideas.

What I’ve slowly started to recognise, and what was driven home in the TED podcast, was that we can’t always be moving forward all the time. Although this problem applies across the board in academia, not allowing time to think and plan can be particularly costly for early career researchers. For those of us without permanent positions there is a lot of pressure to come up with a real zinger of an idea that we can write-up into the next big winning grant application. This hopefully gives us a couple more years of salary, and may even give leverage towards getting the elusive permanent position. We are also under a lot of pressure to publish profusely and I can’t help but think that if I’m not producing my peers will be, and I don’t want to fall behind when it comes to being competitive for jobs.

For the really good ideas to come, the ones that aren’t immediately obvious, we need time to reflect and think deeply. Although it’s quite possible that these big ideas may show themselves through fortuitous discovery while working on a current project, or through a stroke of genius, we still need lots of time to fully develop these ideas.  It’s pretty much impossible to do this if you are always in a rush to get the next job done.

So how does procrastination fit into all of this? In Adam Grant’s TED talk and in a New York Times column he discusses the attributes of original thinkers and why a moderate amount of procrastination can be helpful. He argues that very organised people, the ‘pre-crastinators‘, tend to rush in to new tasks and want to finish them quickly to reduce their anxiety for an impending deadline. These people tend to be highly productive but not necessarily creative, because they often grasp the first and most obvious idea that comes to mind and run with it. Pre-crastinators are less likely to sit back and think about alternatives or new ways to approach a problem.

I think I could be classified to be a pre-crastinator. I like to reply to emails immediately to get them out of my mind, I always pay bills as soon as they come in rather than waiting for the due date, and I finished my Honours dissertation 3 weeks before the due date while my friends were pulling all-nighters. Little did I realise that I shouldn’t feel quite so smug about being organised because this may be coming at the cost of creativity.

On the other hand, it may not pay to be a chronic procrastinator either, because  completing a task in a last minute rush may also lead to you grabbing hold of the most simple and not very well thought out idea. Grant argues that finding a happy medium between rushing in head first and putting things off until you have to pull an all-nighter may be a useful way to become more creative.

Start something but then put it back down. Don’t finish it straight away.

Instead, if you keep the idea mulling over in the back of your mind you may find that you come up with creative insights about how to make it better. People who are quick to start but slow to finish a project may have the creative edge over the rest of us.

I would also argue that as well as letting things bubble away in the background, it is also important to actively put aside time to think. By this I mean turn off the computer, put down the pipette, and move into another mental (and maybe physical) space altogether. I’m sure everyone finds that they have a lot of good ideas when lying in bed just before sleep, probably because this is the first time in the day when we’ve slowed down. I think it is therefore important to find the right setting to allow deep thought and creativity.

I’m not sure how true the below quote is, but this is one of my favourites that I first saw pinned to the door of Dr Margaret Stanley’s office:

A student in Rutherford’s lab was very hard-working. Rutherford had noticed it and asked one evening – “Do you work in the mornings too?”. “Yes” proudly answered the student sure he would be commended. “But when do you think”? amazed Rutherford.

Instead of feeling the pressure to always be doing something with instant, recognisable outputs, I’m trying to put aside more time to think. In the same podcast, Lakshimi Pratury talks about the art of hand writing letters and how they can give you time to consider a deeper response than may be achieved in a quickly fired-off email. This got me thinking about when I have my best ideas. I feel like I’m able to think clearer when I’m cozied up with a good pot of tea and a notebook, rather than staring at my laptop.


Although I usually write papers directly into Word now (I was still doing this by hand until my Honours year!), I still plan out critical ideas and manuscript structures in my notebook first. I also like to print off a few recent papers and read these away from my computer so that I can absorb them slowly and jot down ideas that may spring to mind as I go along. These ideas are then transferred into a word document later on so that I have current and future project ideas in one place, meaning I can shelve them and stew on them to return to at a later point. I often find that once I’ve made these ideas ‘live’ (i.e. made a rough plan or jotted it down in my notebook) they stay in the back of my mind and sometimes listening to a colleague give or talk or reading a new paper can trigger a new direction for that idea. It can be useful to skim over that list of ideas occasionally too and remind yourself of what’s there – I’m sometimes surprised that with time I will be able to add new thoughts to an idea and have a better understanding of how to move it forward.

So, instead of thinking that procrastination is the same as laziness, I’m trying to be ok with being less productive in the hope that it may bring some creativity.  I’ve also started knitting and hoping that, once I can do it without having to ferociously concentrate, this hobby might be a nice way to actively relax and have some good thinking time.


You can just about see the stress in those tight stitches!

*In a classic twist on a post on procrastination, you’ll notice that I started writing this on the first of the month and it is now almost October!

In anticipation of the field season ahead


Welcome Madeleine!

This week I received the great news that Madeleine Thom will be joining me this summer to work on sperm competition in giraffe weevils. Madeleine has been awarded an UoA summer studentship which gives her a couple of months of paid fun to come and hang out with me in the lab and field. Madeleine will be kicking off the first work on sperm competition in the giraffe weevil, in particular addressing how males of different sizes allocate sperm, and whether there are any differences in their sperm morphology. I’m really curious to see what Madeleine finds out.


How do these 2 different male types (the guarding male on right vs sneaking male in the middle) allocate resources to sperm vs weaponry?

While Madeleine has things under control on the giraffe weevil front, I’ll be heading off across the country in search of harvestmen. This is the beginning of our project on weapon variation in this group, and one of my main aims this season will be to find good spots to observe the behaviour of a whole bunch of different species. I’ll also be doing several collecting missions to bring back harvestmen to the lab where I can look more closely at chelicerae (jaw) shape and size variation, so that we can start to piece together patterns of weapon evolution among the NZ long-legged harvestmen.

I’m particularly excited about going here:


The wild Catlins coast, where fellow arachnid enthusiast Leilani Walker and I will be road-tripping this December (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

and here…


Beautiful Mahia beach south of Gisborne, where I’ll be spending a week in January with beetle hunters Dave Seldon, Rich Leschen & Crystal Maier (Photo: Wikipedia commons)

Should be an above average summer I reckon. Oh and if you’ve ever wondered where the term ‘field work’ (which you’ve probably heard many ecologists use to contrast data collection outdoors vs experimentation in the lab) came from, check out this fun blog.

Have a productive and fun field season ahead southern hemispherites!

Beyond museum displays: Making use of natural history collections

I recently spent a week in the Otago Museum arthropod collection in Dunedin where I had  a wonderful time picking through the myriad of harvestmen. The sheer abundance and diversity of harvestmen in the collection, and the joy I get from being among all this history made me think – not for the first time – just how important biological collections are.


One of the many harvestmen in the Forster collection at Otago Museum

In my short career I have made use of numerous natural history collections around the world, from my academic roots at the impressive Lincoln University Entomology Research Collection, the secret corridors and quirky displays at the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, to the great halls of the British Natural History Museum.


Beautiful ceilings in the Tribute to Galileo in the Museo di Storia Naturale ‘La Specola’ in Florence

While taking a break to look through the public displays is great fun, the main point of these missions is to delve into the arthropod collections kept behind the scenes. Phenomenal amounts of information are stored in never-ending stacks of drawers, filled with insects, bird skins, jars of pickled snakes…pretty much anything you can imagine! If you want to get an idea of the immense amount of objects stored in a museum’s collection, check out this amazing photo essay from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

One highlight for me was coming across some of Alfred Wallace’s 19th century collection when I was sorting through some brentine weevils in the British Natural History Museum. I’ll never forget that feeling of wonder that I was (carefully) holding the very specimens that Wallace mentions in his famous book The Malay Archipelago:

“I once saw two males fighting together; each had a fore-leg laid across the neck of the other, and the rostrum bent quite in an attitude of defiance, and looking most ridiculous” (p276-277)


Two brentid weevils fighting as illustrated in Wallace’s classic text “The Malay Archipelago” (Drawing by E.W. Robinson)


Exciting discoveries in the Natural History Museum

These collections represent a snapshot in time and can tell a story about the community of organisms that were present at the place they were found. The possible contributions that collections can make to society are countless. This paper by Andrew Suarez and Neil Tsutsui describes some of the scientific applications from biological collections housed in museums. Museum collections have been used to understand the spread of Argentine ants across the USA, track the effect of climate change on species distributions, and even learn about the transmission of infectious diseases like influenza. What’s apparent from my own experience using collections, and those studies mentioned in the Suarez and Tsutsui paper, is that being able to use museums saves researchers an enormous amount of time and money. Imagine the cost involved in personally travelling to all of the places around the world to try to find the specimens you are interested in, and this would be impossible anyway if you want to look at historic patterns.


Visiting the natural history museums where the best collections are kept can also allow you to get to know the experts who also work on your study organisms. Natural history museums often hire scientists who as well as maintaining the collections usually have their own research specialty. These are the people who painstakingly describe new species and who build our understanding of the relationships between groups of species. Given the importance of describing the diversity of species we have in the world, taxonomists are an incredibly valuable group of scientists. If you are lucky, your new taxonomist friends might even invite you to stay at their Tuscan villa where you spend your evenings entertaining puppies and watching the sunset over the olive orchards.


Puppies, olive orchards, and Tuscan sunsets….

During my latest visit at the Otago Museum I had a couple of goals. Firstly I wanted to get my head around the taxonomy of the long-legged harvestmen (Opiliones: Neopilionidae) in New Zealand. Otago Museum was a perfect place to do this because it houses an enormous number of harvestmen that were largely collected by the Dunedin-based arachnologist Raymond Forster, who was director of the museum from 1957 to 1987. Forster and others deposited specimens into the Otago Museum from all over New Zealand, with a particular focus on the South Island. The collection is therefore very useful when trying to figure out what species are where, and at what time of the year I should be looking. This will help me plan subsequent field trips around New Zealand to observe the mating and fighting behaviour of various long-legged harvestmen species, with the larger goal to try to figure out why males have such varying jaw shape and size.


Incredibly long jaws (chelicerae) on a male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Waitomo


Tools of the trade

While I was there I also started collecting data on the morphology of as many specimens as I could get through (which was probably 0.0001% of the available collection). As I’m interested in jaw shape and size and how this relates to body size and the sex of the harvestmen, I took lots of photos that I will later use to take various measurements.


Taking photos of harvestmen body parts using the microscope camera at Otago Museum

So once again I’ve been thankful that natural history museums exist and hope that we can continue funding these valuable institutions. Scientific progress would be greatly hindered if we lost museums and the experts who continue the tradition of describing and understanding our natural world.

If you are interested you can listen to this Our Changing World podcast by Alison Ballance which was made after the recent Royal Society report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand. You can also learn more about the importance of taxonomy and biological collections in New Zealand here.


A drawer of brentid weevils at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris




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