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).

Baby news!

I’m (Chrissie) currently on parental leave caring for my new bubba Elliot, who was born at the end of September. We spent the first 6 weeks of Elliot’s life in lockdown as the Delta strain spread into the Waikato. Needless to say it was a challenging time with a very energetic 4 year old at home to entertain while we got to know our new pēpi and adjusted to the familiar exhaustion from sleep deprivation. We’re all doing very well though and enjoying having a new addition to our whānau.

Despite my absence, the Painting lab is still busy, with Michaela handing in her MSc thesis at the end of 2021, and Lara soon to complete in mid January. Simon has been having a productive field season collecting spiders to run his mating experiments, and has been lucky to visit some beautiful sites in the South Island despite COVID doing its best to thwart plans. Rene’s work on the effects of temperature on pollination behaviour has also been held up with last year’s lockdowns, but will be progressing again in the new year. Grant’s off on a very exciting adventure in the waters around Antarctica as a fishing observer, but will be back soon to continue his MSc.

I’ll be back in the office/lab in September 2022. Feel free to get in touch before then – I’m still keeping an eye on my emails in between baby cuddles and pottering about in the vege garden.

Simon Connolly wins People’s Choice Award at the 3MT Doctoral finals

Congratulations to our very own Simon Connolly for recently winning the People’s Choice Award at the University of Waikato 3MT Doctoral finals! Simon was one of 10 finalists who gave captivating talks on their PhD research, and from the laughter and cheers of the audience it was very clear that Simon had done a great job of entertaining and informing the crowd.

Simon after giving his talk in the 3MT heats

If you’d like to hear Simon’s talk on his research into sexual cannibalism in New Zealand nursery web spiders, you can check out the You Tube recording below.

New papers out from Dr Erin Powell’s PhD research

Congratulations to Dr Erin Powell, who has had not one but TWO papers out from her PhD research on the evolution and ecology of weapon polymorphic New Zealand harvestmen over the last few weeks!

First up you can read a beautiful natural history account describing the predators, diet and defense behaviours of the long-legged harvestmen (Neopilionidae) found in Aotearoa New Zealand, which was published recently in the Journal of Arachnology. The paper includes lots of great images showing off the various behaviours she describes in the paper so it makes for a really enjoyable read. It’s so great to see natural history being appreciated and published by society journals.

Erin also did a really neat set of observations and experiments on one species of harvestmen, Forsteropsalis pureora, where she investigated the rates of autotomy among males of different weapon morphs. Lots of different animals use autotomy as a defense strategy against predators, where they can shed a limb at a predetermined breakage point to give themselves a better chance to escape. Erin hypothesised that males employing scrambling tactics would have higher rates of predation exposure during mate searching compared to males with much larger weapons, that use female-defense tactics. This could manifest in higher rates of autotomy for scrambling males. However, the experiments showed that although there were really high rates of autotomy (54% of wild caught males had at least one leg lost!), there was no evidence of different autotomy rates between male morphs. Also, during predator simulation experiments there was no difference in whether males from different morphs would drop legs, or which leg they dropped. This was a really nice example of a study that investigates the potential costs of scrambling to find mates. That paper is out now in Animal Behaviour.

A male Forsteropsalis pureora in the ‘short broad’ morph. Photographer: Chrissie Painting

Searching for papers on allometry for a special issue

Calling all researchers who are interested in allometry, the study of how the traits of organisms scale with size. Dr Emma Sherratt and I are guest editing a special issue in Evolutionary Ecology which will focus on the evolutionary and ecological implications of allometry. We would love to see submissions on your favourite study organisms across a wide range of fields including sexual selection, behaviour, metabolic scaling, coevolution and beyond.

We particularly welcome student and early career researcher submissions, who get additional benefits to publishing at Evolutionary Ecology including a Springer book voucher and free open access of your publication for the first 8 weeks online.

Feel free to get in touch with Emma and I with pre-submission enquiries or go ahead and submit before 31st August 2021.

For more details on the special issue, check out the call for papers here.

Painting lab at the NZ Entomological Society Conference

After a year of cancelled or virtual meetings, the Painting lab crew were very excited to head off to Dunedin last week to attend the 69th NZ Entomological Society Conference hosted at the Otago Museum. For some of the students it was their very first scientific meeting, and a perfect opportunity to share research findings and ideas in a friendly, supportive environment.

As you can image, pretty much every entomologist in New Zealand was buzzing for the opportunity to hang out with their fellow bug nerds and talk science for a few days, so the conference ended up being fairly large for a local meeting – about 120 participants if I’m not mistaken!

Attendees of the 2021 NZ Entomological Society meeting

All of the Masters students in the lab presented a poster on their research, with two of them receiving awards for their work. Grant Fale got 1st prize for best poster for his Masters research investigating the interactions between native bees and honey bees on mānuka flowers, while Rene Devenish won 2nd prize for her MSc research on the effects of temperature on the physiology and behaviour of pollinators.

Above: Rene with her prize winning poster on the effects of warming temperatures on the physiology and behaviour of pollinators (left), and Michaela with her poster outlining her research on the effects of population density on mating dynamics in giraffe weevils.

Simon gave an engaging talk on some of his preliminary findings from his field research and crossing experiments figuring out the mating system and dynamics of introgression in two Dolomedes fishing spiders. He also won a 21st Anniversary student research award to support his ongoing research, including some upcoming field trips to the deep south of NZ to find some introgressing spiders!

Anyone who knows Simon will not be surprised by the abundance of Star Trek references throughout his talk

A fantastic addition to this year’s conference was a market desk packed full of beautiful NZ Entomology art including the NZ insect playing cards, prints by Josh MacKinnon, and an amazing insect poster and gift cards by Lily Duval.

Lily Duval‘s beautiful insect ABC poster

Thanks to the organising committee for a wonderful few days hearing about all the great entomological research going on in NZ, and to our national COVID response team for making it possible to meet in person during a pandemic.

Most of the Painting lab crew checking out the Tūhura Science Centre & butterfly house at the Otago Museum (L to R: Lara, Michaela, Brody, Simon, Chrissie, Rene)

Shiny new lab!

It’s been a year and a half since Chrissie joined the University of Waikato faculty and with all the chaos getting teaching and research underway there’s been no news updates in all that time!

Despite the immense challenges that 2020 and Covid19 has brought, we are very excited to show off the newly emerged Invertebrate Behavioural Ecology lab. New initiative support from the University of Waikato means we could equip the lab with new benches, shelving, microscopes, and a freezer. All ready for lots of exciting new research!

The new microscopy & experiment room

The lab is already housing several hundred Dolomedes fishing spiders as part of Simon Connolly’s PhD research and will soon see the addition of giraffe weevils and peripatus as part of Michaela Lambert, Lara Mills and Brody Chapman’s MSc projects.

The rearing room is already home to several hundred Dolomedes spiders
Michaela, about to start her MSc, doing dissections on the new stereo microscope

We are also excited to be hosting Joseph McCormick, an MSc student working with Tanya Latty and Tom White at U Sydney, who is starting his experiments looking at social information transfer in ants.

Simon & Joseph attending to their study species in the rearing room



This has been the most fun hashtag on Twitter for a while! #UnScienceAnAnimal

Here’s my take on it for the NZ giraffe weevil (tuwhaipapa):


Some other invert favourites:

A year of being a science mama

In October 2017 my dream of becoming a mum became a reality with the birth of my son. A year or so on, I’ve been reflecting a lot about life as a mother and scientist, and the challenges of combining these two rewarding jobs. I’ve been writing this blog in my head for a while and wondering what or how much to say. So much of becoming a parent is personal, confronting, raw and beautiful. It’s hard to know what to share that might help other academic mums and mums-to-be. What follows is my story, even the bits I’m a little embarrassed to share. Also, I offer some reflections on what I think worked for me, how my colleagues, department, and family enabled me to have a fairly smooth transition back to work after my son was born, and some of the things I struggle with.

Here goes.

Pregnancy was tough – anxiety around losing another baby (following miscarriage) mixed with a long period of morning sickness meant a pretty unproductive period at work. I worried about living up to the supermum status that seems prevalent among field biologists while simultaneously congratulating myself if I made it from bed to couch without spewing. I did field work very early on before I got sick, but after that I spent a lot of time lying on my office floor inspecting the carpet (ew) and catching up on lab work.

There was a relatively good period somewhere in the middle where I could keep a meal down and energy levels went up. Foolishly, it was during this bit that I said yes to way too many things and overloaded my plate so that when third trimester exhaustion hit I had to go around apologizing for everything I couldn’t deliver on. Nobody seemed surprised or offended though, all my colleagues apparently being a lot wiser than I.

I was very glad I took 3 weeks of leave to relax and nest before baby was due. I remember this as a glorious time of Netflix binging, reading stacks of second-hand novels by wāhine toa, short waddles and lots of yoga. If I think harder I remember nights roaming the house with insomnia, complaining A LOT about being uncomfortable and intense anxiety about the unknowns of parenthood.

Baby arrived after several days of labour during a straightforward birth one day after his due date. He was small, hairy and perfect. What followed was a pretty dark period of postnatal depression that manifested in not being able to fall asleep for days on end, panic attacks and swelling anxiety that started mid-afternoon and would be out of control by evening. With support from my whānau and amazing midwife I was started on medication that eventually turned things around. The fog slowly cleared and I started enjoying being a mum.

The next few months were a rollercoaster that I’m sure any parent can relate to. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the couch prone while my son slept on me or pounding the pavement with him in the front pack in an attempt to get him to sleep longer than 20 minutes. I felt so guilty about ‘wasting’ time but I look back and wish I could have embraced that special time of cuddles and healing.

When my son was about 4 months old and my depression was under control, I started thinking about work. We had some small semblance of routine that meant on Sundays I would arm my husband with a bottle of expressed milk and head off to our local library for a couple of hours of writing. I LOVED those few hours in the library. This strangely turned out to be one of the most creative and exciting times in my career, as I plotted ideas and wrote grants. In hindsight I think having very few expectations on me while on leave gave me headspace to think. During this time I re-prioritised my research plans for the next few years, coming up with things I could work on close to home now that doing field work in remote places at night was not possible while my son was young.

After 7 months of leave I returned to work part-time, leaving my son in daycare. All things considered it was a smooth transition, but if I’m honest I spent the first few weeks feeling very lost. I guarded my 2 days in the office closely and didn’t really socialise, spending my lunch break pumping milk and cramming as much in as I could so that I could escape home to bubs. My colleagues were wonderfully supportive, helping me to protect my time and focus on what was important with the limited time I had in the office/lab. A couple of months in I travelled to Brisbane with my husband and baby to present at the ASSAB conference. It was expensive to bring them both with me but worked well having them close for breastfeeding, and we made the most of the trip with our first family holiday afterward.

When my son turned one I increased my workload to 4 days a week, which really helped to feel more productive. I love my Fridays at home with him. We always do something special together and I spend a happy guilt-free day focused solely on my son. Around this time I took a research trip to Perth to visit a collaborator, making the most of one of the grants I had written and won while on maternity leave. With generous support from my HoD I was able to take my mum with me to care for my son while I was in the lab, allowing me to spend a fantastic week planning new projects and learning techniques.

So, a year on being a working mum is becoming my new normal. When I’m in the office/lab/field I focus on my work, and when I’m at home my family takes up all my time. It’s not an easy balance and I’m still struggling with a few hurdles. While my son still breastfeeds and my husband works shifts I’m finding it next to impossible to do the field work required for my current postdoc (which researches nocturnal harvestmen found in remote parts of NZ). That frustrates me to no end but I try to remind myself it won’t last forever and I’m trying to find future projects that I can work around my family a little easier. It’s taken a while to learn what working part-time means in terms of what can be done during a working week. I’m learning to say no, even though sometimes I would actually really like to say yes. Since having a child I’ve become hyper-aware of how many work activities happen after 4pm. Although these are usually not essential events to attend, I miss going to networking events and seminars. I’m sure this gets easier as baby gets older.

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges has been overcoming guilt. I’m sure everyone feels it to some degree when becoming a parent but boy oh boy does it pop up often. I feel guilty about my low level of productivity at work over the last couple of years, guilty about not enjoying parenthood in the first few months, and guilty about being happy about going back to work. I’m learning to shrug that off now and it feels so much better.

For what it’s worth, acknowledging that this ‘advice’ is only coming from my own experience, here are some suggestions for new academic mamas:

  • Block out the voices (internal or otherwise) that tell you what you ‘should’ be doing during pregnancy or when you have a young baby. You might have all the energy and passion for work in the world, in which case good on you and go for it! If you’re like me and felt like both were all about survival, know that you are not alone and like many parts of parenthood, this too shall pass!
  • If you can, surround yourself with your village, whoever that may be. Say yes to offers of help/food/cleaning, don’t be too proud to say yes.
  • Outsource when you can. Hire a cleaner, use click & collect for groceries, do baby swaps with other parents, bring more collaborators on board.
  • Lower your expectations. I was told this many times and it took a while to really take this on board. I got used to having a messier house, showering every third day (sorry to my office mate!), and saying no to opportunities at work that didn’t gel with my baby’s routine. I struggled with this A LOT, especially with regards to delivering at work, but to my knowledge there has been no catastrophic effect from giving fewer f*cks.
  • Be upfront with your supervisor/head of department/colleagues about how they can support your transition back to work. Be direct about what you need, when they can expect you to be in the office, and let them know that this might (will) change as your baby grows. For me this resulted in: being able to extend my contract for the length of time I was on leave, colleagues respecting the limited amount of time I was in the office when working part-time (i.e. ‘permission’ to skip non-essential meetings, seminars and morning teas), financial support to hire an RA to help out in the lab, financial support to fly my mum to babysit bubs while I was on a research trip abroad, being lent a small fridge to store breastmilk (from the UoA Equity Office), & a colleague lending me their student’s office to pump in.

  • Probably one of the most useful things I did early on after returning was to make a big list of all my main jobs including all the boards/committees I serve on. I then worked through this list and prioritised what was most useful for me going forward for my career, and resigned from those that I had perhaps already got what I needed from or felt I had ‘done my time’. When working part-time there just aren’t enough hours to deliver on all these service-related commitments so be ruthless with your time, especially during that transition period.
  • Avoid deadlines wherever possible. This one I learnt from Emily Nicholson’s awesome blog on being a science mum. Deadlines have the uncanny ability to pop up right when your baby gets ill or decides to stop sleeping. When my baby had a 3 week period of sleeping well when he was about 4 months old I naively thought the hard bit was over and started getting enthusiastic about work. Consequently this resulted in me signing up to do far too many things which all came to a head a few months later when we were back in crappy sleep land and I had no energy to complete any of it. Cherry pick the ones that are important to you.
  • Be wary of overpacking your schedule, especially when returning part-time. If, like me, you aren’t used to working part-time it can be quite hard to figure out what fits in to a couple of working days. Be kind on yourself as you learn this and most likely stuff it up. People understand if you have to say no or pull out.
  • If on an organising committee, try to arrange events to be during work hours to include your fellow parents, or at least alternate them between lunch time and evening events.
  • Lastly, be kind to yourself and know that it gets easier. It truly does. Even when you are in the thick of some awful sleep regression, your whole house gets gastro for the third time in a month and you have that grant deadline looming, know that you’ll get through it. Recruit your village, do what you need to survive and believe in yourself e hoa!

bug hunting with bubs

Sharing my love for nature with my baby is one of my favourite parts of being a mum.