MacClade’s 30th Anniversary

MacClade1Today is MacClade’s 30th birthday! Version 1 was released 21 June 1986, with David joining me for version 2 the following year.  The last release was version 4, but it’s not commonly in use today, as it is no longer compatible with modern operating systems. Those biologists who use it need to maintain ancient machines (or emulators) to run it. There are, however, some who do use it, and we often get comments that people miss it. Some of its DNA persists in Mesquite (both conceptually and as some code translated straight from Pascal into Java).  Happy Birthday, MacClade!

BIOL 336: Fundamentals of Evolutionary Biology

banner100At UBC, most of my teaching has been in specialized phylogenetics courses to 4th year undergraduates and graduate students, but that’s about to change. This spring, Jeannette Whitton and I are teaching Fundamentals of Evolutionary Biology (BIOL 336). Jeannette has done the course before, I haven’t, but both of us are looking at it with fresh eyes. Composing a whole series of entirely new lectures has been more work than I’d expected, especially since we are aiming high — we want to be clear and compelling, and have fun while we’re at it. I’m looking forward to the start of the course this coming week, while simultaneously being anxious about whether I’ll have all of my pieces ready on time. Here is our syllabus.

27000 images of jumping spiders

announcementImagesOver the years, I’ve tried to take photographs of living males and females of every species of jumping spider collected on most of our expeditions. This amounts to many hundreds of species, some of them poorly known or entirely undescribed. In total, I have about 27000 digital or digitized photographs of salticids, some going back to the 1970’s.

There has been no point in keeping them secret, but any system of organizing them for release was hampered by the lack of a good taxonomic organization of the family. Now that I have published a new salticid classification, that problem is solved. Thus, I am releasing most of my photos here: They are released under a Creative Commons license so that they may be re-used. My hope is that they will be useful to other arachnologists in their research, and that arachnological elves will incorporate them into Wikispecies and other places.

As noted, this collection includes many images of undescribed species. If you plan to describe some of these species, please contact me first, because I may already be preparing a species description. Consider this as a fair exchange, because if I am not describing the species, then you are welcome to use the photographs in your own publication describing the species.

A new phylogenetic classification of jumping spiders

announcementYesterday, my paper on the classification of jumping spiders was released online; the paper publication is 25 November. It’s good old-fashioned taxonomy/systematics, finished with hand-carved wood, and leather, and brass, but on the inside is phylogenetics, the union of my 44 years of looking at spider bodies and our 20 years of molecular phylogenetic work. It is the first new complete classification of the family published since 1903, and implicitly the first phylogenetic treatment of all 600-plus genera. The paper is available online here.

I expect that, among all the works in my career in empirical, theoretical and computational systematics, this paper will give me the most pride, and will best give the spiders the honour they deserve.

The new Andean jumping spider genus Urupuyu and a revised classification of the Amycoida


Urupuyu edwardsi, male. © 2015 W. Maddison, Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 3.0 license

In the cloud forests of Ecuador we found, in 2004 and 2010, some small shiny black jumping spiders that we couldn’t recognize. Gustavo Ruiz and I have just published a paper describing them as the new amycoid genus Urupuyu, from the Quechua words for spider (uru) and cloud (puyu). This paper does a lot more than that, however. We take the opportunity to do a phylogenetic analysis of the whole clade of amycoids, and present, finally, a comprehensive phylogenetic classification of the group. I’m proud of what Gustavo and I accomplished with this paper, as it is a major step forward for salticids in the Americas.

Ruiz GRS, Maddison WP. 2015. The new Andean jumping spider genus Urupuyu and its placement within a revised classification of the Amycoida (Araneae: Salticidae). Zootaxa 4040: 251–279.

Paper published: A reinterpretation of Thiodina

I think of Linnaeus as the founder of bioinformatics, as he established 250 years ago an implicit database (publications about our classification) with a defined ontology (taxa, taxon ranks, hierarchy) and rules for application.  The rules help mediate disputes and maintain order. Among the modern rules are that names are attached to specially designated specimens, and if there is doubt, you go back to the “type” specimen to understand how to apply the name.  Thus, Abel Bustamante, Gustavo Ruiz and I found that the type specimens of the type species of the familiar American genus Thiodina didn’t look like what we had expected.  This meant that the name Thiodina applies to a rather different group of spiders than we had thought, and we have to start calling our familiar species by a different name — Colonus.  Annoying, but not disastrous, and it makes sense to respect the rules as long as it doesn’t hurt too much.  Our publication about this just came out.

PechaKucha: Can spiders inspire art and design?

Last week I gave a talk at PechaKucha Night Vancouver, which is a public mini-symposium of fast-paced talks fueled by beer and a warm-up band. The audience and speakers are full of energy and idealism. Most are connected with the art and design community, but unexpectedly our night was mostly political/social. Great (and moving) talks. Why was I, a biologist, talking in a forum for art, design and social projects? Well, watch to find out.

Lorna Levi

forLorna1Last week we learned the sad news that Lorna Levi passed away, less that two weeks after the death of her partner of 65 years, Herb Levi. She was 86.

After Herb passed away, I began to write a letter to Lorna. It wasn’t yet finished when I heard of her death. This is how I had begun it:

To you and Frances I send my condolences for the loss of Herb. I have so many memories of Herb, and many of them are also memories of you. Although I didn’t observe your relationship often, it was clear that your lives were deeply intertwined. It was hard to think of Herb without thinking of you, especially when I visited Pepperell, or when I thought of Herb working at his home laboratory from Wednesdays through Sundays. I imagine the little tortoise walking around between his feet. The two of you, your house, the land and animals and food that you nurtured, gave to me a way to think about how to build a life and a better world.

That last sentence is very much how I thought of Lorna. Understated, with bright eyes holding a mischievous wit, full of the colours and textures of nature. She built not by cutting and imposing our straight lines, but by nurturing — plants, fabrics, and the pot of rich food on her stove. Oh, the multifarious Thanksgiving meals she put on for the “orphaned” graduate students in Herb’s lab!

She was a partner in the background of much of Herb’s contributions as a spider taxonomist, supporting him in more than one way. There’s a story — I hope I have this right — of her helping Herb to get over the fence at some foreign museum unexpectedly closed, so that he could get in and look at important specimens. That is the image I am left with, Lorna being a tiny bit subversive and doing what needed to be done.

“Och, my head is full of spider genitalia!”

leviPepperellHerbert Walter Levi, one of the grand arachnologists of the 20th century, died on Monday 3 November 2014. He was my PhD supervisor, and the supervisor of many of our most prominent spider systematists (and non-systematists). I took the photograph above in the 1980’s when I was a grad student. At right you can just see his beloved Lorna’s arm with a blue jay on it. They are on their property out in Pepperell.

Over his career, he described about 1200 new species of spiders, showing his commitment through tireless efforts on taxonomic monographs. Every species was to be described well, illustrated beautifully: every one was to be respected. As my supervisor, he provided for me a perfectly equipped laboratory in which to grow into arachnology, but mostly he was a role model: he showed me that it was OK to love your organisms, to become immersed in their diversity and to dedicate your life to them.

Herb said that he hadn’t planned to be a taxonomist, but rather found that he couldn’t identify his specimens for the ecological work he intended, and hence had to divert into taxonomy, a diversion that lasted his life. His taxonomic revisions then enabled other biologists to write hundreds of papers on spider ecology, behaviour, evolution, and of course systematics. He taught not only the undergrads in his Invertebrate Biology course, and his graduate students, but also the public. He was author (along with Lorna) of the Golden Nature Guide “Spiders and their Kin”, which was my first spider field guide, when I was 13 years old.

Here is his brief timeline:
1921 born in Frankfurt, Germany
1938 emigrated to U.S.A.
1946 BS University of Connecticut
1947 MS University of Wisconsin
1949 PhD University of Wisconsin
1949 married Lorna Rose
1949-1956 instructor – associate professor, University of Wisconsin
1956-1991 associate curator then curator then professor then Agassiz professor, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

I remember once I walked into his office, and Herb was talking to his secretary. Apparently he had forgotten to do some bureaucratic task, and in dismay, he slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Och, my head is full of spider genitalia”. Truly, it was. And that was what was marvellous about him. He illuminated his cherished spiders for us. We have more than 1200 reasons to remember him for the next few centuries.