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.

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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.

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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)

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

Autumn fun with giraffe weevils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The same sneaky male mating while a larger male guards

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The end of a year abroad

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

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Reuniting with friends!

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Paradise! Omanawa Falls near Tauranga

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

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

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The incredible hind legs of a male Anoplocnemis phasiana

 

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

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

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

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

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Paradise gliding snake at Dairy Farm Reserve

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A curious colugo checking out Caleb with his camera

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest challenges:

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

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

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The best Nonya cendol in Malacca!

 

 

 

Drawings by Emma Scheltema

Last year the Holwell lab was lucky to meet Emma Scheltema, who was kind enough to do a bunch of illustrations for us of our various study species. I’m looking forward to including her work in our upcoming publications.

You can see some of her beautiful work here but for her full portfolio you should check out her website.

malesfighting_shaded_gscale_webverTwo male giraffe weevils grappling  – one of Emma’s creations

A new life in Singapore

I recently made one of those decisions which, although pretty normal for a lot of academics, meant uplifting my life in New Zealand and moving to Singapore. I finished my PhD almost 2 years ago now and have been lucky to get several postdoc positions, one at the University of Auckland (where I did my PhD) and a shorter stint at the Australian National University (playing with fiddler crabs in Darwin).

photos for blog(left to right) 1. Male Forsteropsalis harvestmen eating a fly, 2. Male Pantopsalis cheliferoides harvestmen, 3. male Uca elegans fiddler crabs jostling for a burrow

These opportunities allowed me to get publications from my thesis out, make some new collaborations and delve into new research areas. The time had come, however, to head off and do something different and so I jumped at the chance to take up a research fellowship at the National University of Singapore. Although exciting, this has meant that my husband and I had to make the decision whether to do this together or live apart for the next couple of years. We decided (after much discussion & ultimately sacrifice on his part) that he would come along too & so he quit his job, we packed up our house, put all our belongings in storage and off we went to Singapore!

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Strolling around Kent Ridge Park

So here we are, a few weeks into our new life living in a country the same size as my old city but with a LOT more people. The upside is that living in the tropics means there is a pretty incredible amount of wildlife to see, even in a little city park or on campus on my walk to work in the mornings. I’ve been having fun ticking off the birds on campus using this handy website & this great app of Singapore birds. I even found out today there is an app for the snakes of Singapore which is great as we have already spotted three snakes while out and about. I’ve also realized that birding is a great way to make friends – on the weekend we met a Singaporean bloke called Philip who gave us all the latest gossip on where to see an orange headed thrush (you take the track at Bukit Timah with the stairs, turn left, then go straight and you should see a bunch of other birders with their tripods). He also told us how to find this super cute baby Spotted Wood Owl at Pasir Ris Park which we spotted snoozing up high in a tree near the beach (turns out we need a better zoom lens).

OwlAnyway, before anyone mistakes me for biologist working on charismatic megafauna, I should mention that I’m actually here to work on jumping spiders (Salticidae). As anyone who has a love for jumping spiders will know, they are renowned for their incredible diversity in colour and their charming courtship behaviours.

jumping spidersI’m going to be exploring a few different questions, but the main aim is to trace the origin and evolution of UV-colour in male jumping spiders and to compare this to how females use male colour to make judgments on male mate quality. Daiqin Li’s group ­­has already done a fair amount of work in this area already, which is actually really exciting for me as I spent a lot of time during my PhD working out the very basics of giraffe weevil ecology. Here I can jump in and build on all the great stuff already done and hopefully get stuck in to some bigger picture research such as using phylogenies to map the evolution of colour & its use in mate choice.

In the meantime, here are a couple of pics we’ve taken when out exploring the local parks on the weekends – still need to get a macro lens so mostly larger animals so far!

photos for blog(left to right) Female laced woodpecker, Clouded monitor lizard, Painted bronzeback snake