For Edy Piascik’s project on convergent radiations of salticid spiders, we needed a jumping spider fauna independent from that of our other sampled location, Ecuador (in 2011), so we chose Borneo. We expected that the salticid fauna there would be from very distinct phylogenetic groups than those of Ecuador. Our trip started in Kuching, Sarawak, where we joined Ch’ien Lee (who helped organize the trip and who took this photo of Wayne and Edy) and Alex Ang (who accompanied us the whole trip). Near Kuching and at our two main sampling sites of Mulu and Lambir Hills National Parks we found more than 150 species of salticids. Mulu, in the mountains of the north, is an ecotourist destination (caves and rainforest) and thus one of the most luxurious field sites we’ve known (internet! cafeteria!). Wayne blogged the trip at Scientific American. Here are his posts compiled. followed by links to the original posts on the Scientific American website. [Note: In 2017 we added updates to some of the identifications, in italics.]
Spiders in Borneo: Introduction
For the next five weeks, I will be in Borneo along with a student (Edy Piascik) to find jumping spiders. When I tell people that I look for jumping spiders in tropical forests, they sometimes ask me with fear in their voices: are there spiders that jump? I think they’re imagining bizarre tropical spiders pouncing on people. Well, yes, there are jumping spiders, at least 5000 species of them. But, they’re far too small to pounce on people, and they live all around the world, including on houses back in my city of Vancouver.
My reason to come to Borneo is to find jumping spiders that live nowhere else. Most biodiversity is local. What you find in Borneo will be different species than what you find in New Guinea, different from Africa, and different from Canada. For jumping spiders, the pattern is particularly striking, because not only are the individual species local, but whole evolutionary groups tend to be local, having evolved and diversified in just one continental area. This means for instance that most South American species are closely related to one another, and not closely related to the species in Australia or Africa. It also means that when you go to an unexplored area, the species you find might not only be new, but very new – distantly related from everything else known.
Good tropical forests in Southeast Asia have been little collected, and Borneo hardly at all. Who knows what strange things we might find? We are excited.
Biologists have discovered and recognized just under 2 million different species of living organisms on Earth, most of which are small things like insects. This seems like a big number, and so perhaps you think the Age of Discovery is over, that we have our own planet pretty much figured out.
Far from it.
Various studies have estimated that anywhere from 5 to 100 million species are on Earth right now, and so we are less than half way to discovering the basic units of biodiversity. In understanding life, we biologists are working on a puzzle with most of the pieces still hidden in the box.
As an arachnologist, I confront our ignorance when I collect spiders in a tropical forest. Typically, half or more of the species I find are new to science. Pictured here is one of the new species I found on a 2010 trip to Ecuador — this male has bright blue palpi that he shows off to the females.
On the one hand, it’s tremendously exciting to find a species new to science every day you look. On the other hand, it’s depressing to think how much work remains. And only a few of us are doing it.
And so, Borneo’s forests await.
The guests of honor: Salticidae
It’s time that I introduce you to the guests of honor of my posts, the jumping spiders, known to biologists by the name “Salticidae”. Imagine a miniature cat, 5 millimeters long, spotting prey with keen eyesight, walking carefully toward the prey, then crouching down, inching forward stealthily, tensing its legs, then pouncing with deadly accuracy. That pretty much describes a jumping spider. They hunt like cats, using their acute vision and jumping ability.
Like most spiders, jumping spiders have 8 eyes. Six of these look all around, like our peripheral vision. The two other eyes, in the front middle, are like our fovea, our central vision: narrow field of view, but high resolution. These are the great big eyes in the middle of their faces. You can see photos of these special eyes and how they move in my account of a transparent jumping spider from a recent expedition to Ecuador. What’s remarkable is that they can achieve such an acute visual system in such a small package.
As for their jumping, you might wonder: to jump, why don’t they have big muscular back legs like a kangaroo or a grasshopper? The answer is surprising. Jumping spiders don’t use muscles in their legs to jump. Muscles elsewhere in their bodies contract to raise the blood pressure suddenly, which causes the legs to inflate abruptly and snap straight. A hydraulic jumping mechanism.
Jumping spiders live all around the world except the extreme polar regions. They live in forests, deserts, prairies, and in cities. There’s a good chance there is one within 100 meters of you right now.
Salticids, commonly known as jumping spiders, are our focus. We are Team Salticid Borneo (unfortunately, we forgot to prepare T-shirts in advance).
The four of us have come together from different backgrounds to search for salticids. From left to right in the photo, we are: Ch’ien Lee, a wildlife photographer and naturalist based here in Borneo; Edy Piascik, graduate student at the University of British Columbia; myself, with the goofy smile (anticipating cool salticids); and Alex Ang, a musician from Malaysia with an interest in spiders and scorpions.
Edy and I arrived in Kuching, Sarawak, a few days ago. We have experience in looking for salticids, but not Ch’ien and Alex, and so we’ve been going out on day trips from Kuching as a rehearsal for our foray deeper into Borneo. This also helps us to check out our equipment and recover our field legs. Tomorrow Eddy, Alex and I fly to our main field site, Mulu National Park. Ch’ien will be leaving us, after having helped us set up the expedition and taught us so much about Borneo natural history. My hope is that I’ve infected him with a love for these spiders.
He’s also been taking amazing photos of the jumping spiders we’ve been collecting during our rehearsal. Here’s a stunning portrait of an Agorius, a strange local salticid whose body looks like that of an ant. It’s holding up its first pair of legs, the way an ant holds its antennae. Since Ch’ien won’t be coming to Mulu with us, don’t expect such beautiful photos as this for the remaining posts. But, you’ll still be able to see how amazing these creatures are.
Mulu National Park
We’ve arrived at our primary field site! In the northeast edge of the Malaysian state of Sarawak lies Gunung Mulu National Park, a mountainous area with wonderful forests. It’s a prime destination for ecotourists because of its amazing limestone pinnacles and striking biodiversity. For us, the attraction is spiders.
We need to settle in and get our bearings. Tomorrow, the serious work begins. But, we couldn’t help but look for spiders, for just a few moments. Alex found this cute little Neobrettus whose first legs have striking brushes on them. As she walks, her first legs are in constant motion, waving up and down, and this motion is made especially visible by the brushes. Why it might help the spider to make such a fuss with its legs, we don’t know:
Dreaming about salticid spiders
If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that “Salticidae” is the formal scientific name for jumping spiders. The purpose of this post is to admit that, yes, I dream about salticids.
Any of us who seeks to explore biodiversity in poorly known areas brings with us our field clothes, our collecting equipment, and our dreams of what we might find. Yes, we hope to find something special. But what?
Coming to Borneo, I dream of these jumping spiders: Depreissia, a bizarre ant-like beast that may occupy an important place in the salticid evolutionary tree. Eupoa, a tiny salticid that does indeed have a special place in the evolutionary tree, but we need more specimens to figure out exactly where. Mantisatta, a long narrow spider looking like a blade of grass. Onomastus, a translucent ghost of a salticid.
Now, in these brief descriptions I don’t explain fully why these would be so cool to find. If you were a jumping spider geek you’d nod your head and know why I am excited about the possibility of seeing them. If we do find them, I’ll be sure to tell you all about them.
Then there’s the possibility of finding something that’s so new I can’t even anticipate it. I don’t lay awake at night thinking about this, but I do daydream.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the other spiders are disappointing. In our first few days here at Mulu we have seen many species. Not only will the specimens provide important information to us, but some may represent species new to science, and all are beautiful to look at. Here are a few we’ve found.
The first is the slightly scary looking Epeus, a male with great big eyes, and a red tuft of hairs on the top of its head:
Next is a female Epeus, possibly the same species as the male, but she is a delicate gold:
Finally, a strange jumping spider, Myrmarachne, that looks like an ant. This is a male. Sticking out from the front of his face are his hugely enlarged jaws, the tips of which are swollen into bulbs. When he’s walking around, those bulbs look just like an ant’s head:
Sometimes I can hardly believe the creatures that are on Earth.
Jumping spiders in the forest
We know that the familiar big animals like lions or polar bears specialize on large terrains of habitat like African savannahs or Arctic ice, but perhaps most people don’t realize that smaller creatures specialize at a much smaller scale. To a small spider, a tree trunk is a vast expanse of habitat. There are species of jumping spider that live only on tree trunks, while others live only on the leaves of bushes and trees.
This means that to find a diversity of spider species, you have to think at their scale. If you’ve already collected on tree trunks with rough bark, try the smooth trunks covered with moss — maybe a different species lives there. What about those epiphytic plants growing on the tree branches? They are big enough to hold tiny spiders. Vertical surfaces, horizontal surfaces; moist, dry; decomposing, fresh — each small piece of a forest can provide different living conditions that might just suit a different species. A forest is hundreds of habitats for spiders.
Beating around the bushes
In a tropical forest, many of the distinct habitats for spiders occur above the ground, on the living leaves, branches, vines, and mosses. This three dimensional world is difficult to search. If our sought spider is hidden by a leaf or branch, how do we find it?
One method is to “smoke” them out by creating an insecticide fog that kills the spiders, which then fall on sheets waiting below. The advantage of this method is that it can get spiders from the canopy of the trees, far above. Fogging has been invaluable in learning about the biodiversity of the canopy. But, it takes heavy equipment, there is residue, and the spiders are killed, so I can’t take photos of them alive.
Our method for getting spiders out of vegetation is small scale and terrestrial. We take a sheet stretched by tent poles and place it beneath vegetation. Then (and I beg the forgiveness of my botanist friends), we shake the vegetation, or beat it with a stick. The spiders are shaken off and fall onto the sheet, and are usually easy to see and catch there.
Our beating sheets and beating sticks are treasured pieces of equipment. Indeed, when I find a stick of the right strength and weight, I keep it for decades. If you want to see me demonstrating the method, check out the video of me hyperventilating after I found an especially great spider in Ecuador in 2010. And, here is a photo of Alex beating a small tree:
The spider photographed here is a rather fearsome looking Bathippus that we found in the vegetation here at Mulu. Males of this species have enormous jaws, not to eat better, but rather to outcompete other males for females:
Spiders in leaf litter
In my post “Jumping spiders in the forest” I explained how a forest contains hundreds of different habitats for spiders. Now, let’s get down on our hands and knees, and crawl around the ground.
In most forests, the ground is covered with dead leaves in varying stages of decay. This “leaf litter” can be quite thick, but in many tropical forests it is only a few layers deep, as the leaves are quickly decomposed and their nutrients recycled back into tree growth. The bacteria and fungi that do the bulk of decomposition are part of a whole food web beneath the dead leaves, with many worms, insects, and mites eating the decomposers and each other. A great place for a spider to live.
Many of the jumping spiders that live in leaf litter hop along the surface, scanning the forest floor like lions gazing across the Serengeti. The best way for us to find these is simply to look, walking slowly through the forest, bent over or crawling. When a group of us are doing this, it looks for all the world like someone has lost a contact lens. A small motion on a dead leaf might catch your eye, or once you’re practiced at it, your jumping-spider-search-image might be drawn directly to the tiny dark shape on the ground. You then carefully lower an open vial over the spider before it can hop away.
Some jumping spiders, however, spend most of their time just out of sight, under the leaves. For those, you have to sift through the litter to find the spider. Some people use special sieves to sift out the spiders, literally, but my favorite method is more hands-on. I quickly scoop up leaf litter onto a white sheet I’ve laid down, then push aside the dead leaves to see what spiders are scurrying across the sheet, looking to return to their beloved moist ground. Here’s a photo of me sifting through litter. Whenever I do this, I see so many other kinds of tiny creatures scurrying that I’m reminded how exquisitely rich is biodiversity:
In our “rehearsal” days around Kuching and then in the first couple of days here at Mulu, we have found three species sifting litter that are small and glossy. We have no clue what genus they belong to, so we call them “tiny shiny black” spiders. We’re excited to study them when we get back — we’re pretty sure some of them are new species. (For the salticid geeks: we think they might be astioids. The palpi range from dendryphantine-like to balline-like. [Update: We gave them the name Tisaniba in a 2014 publication]):
A Vertical Life
A whole host of jumping spiders spend their days crawling up and down tree trunks. The ones that live many meters above the ground are hard to get, but the ones that get down to eye level are pretty easy to find.
Often you can find the tree-trunk dwellers just by looking, but because many are colored just like tree bark, it helps to tap the trunk with a stick to provoke them to move and show themselves. When none is seen, or if you are impatient, there’s another method: brushing the trunk with a brush, while a beating sheet is held underneath to catch those dislodged. Here’s Edy in action:
I think you can see that beating sheets are used for more than just beating (see my post on “Beating around the bushes”). They also serve as umbrellas and picnic blankets.
Brushing a tree trunk yesterday, Edy found the most surprising spider of the trip, an adult female that’s tiny — about 1.6 mm long. She has a narrow body and strangely placed eyes (the spider, that is). We didn’t even know what subfamily she belonged to, so we called her “Gray Pixie”. Today, we found males. Males are easier to identify because their palpi, which they use to transfer sperm, often have traits characteristic for a large group of species, even if their bodies have evolved to take on diverse forms. The palpi indicate that these are probably a very strange species of Laufeia, which normally have much larger bodies:
Leeches and eyeballs
Yesterday afternoon I felt something smooth and cool wriggling around my belly button, so I lifted up my shirt. There was a big leech, maybe 4 cm long, loping along like an inchworm on my tummy. I thought, “Oh, that’s good. It hasn’t started sucking yet.” but then I noticed the still-bleeding round spot on my skin, and the blood on the top edge of my pants. The leech had, in fact, just finished eating. They use an anti-coagulant, so the wound tends to bleed for a while.
Some of the leeches here hurt when they bite, but mine was stealthy. These are not the aquatic leeches familiar to those of us in Canada, but are terrestrial. They inch along on the ground or vegetation, reaching out for something, someone, to latch onto.
Here’s a little one on a log, just reaching upward. I had just been sitting there, and it could probably smell me, and so it reached, waving blindly: “I know he must be here somewhere”. Edy has named the terrestrial leeches her number one annoyance on this trip (mine, I will mention in a later post). She’s had 12 on her; I’ve had 9; Alex stopped counting.
We encountered these leeches at Camp 1, a beautiful spot we’ve been at for the last 4 days. It’s a 3 hour hike away from Park Headquarters. Despite the leeches, we will remember Camp 1 fondly. I will mention three highlights. First, of course, the jumping spiders. Lots of species, including some new to us. Here is one that surprised us, a long flat one from tree trunks (salticid geeks: probably a baviine [Update: no, not a baviine]).
Of course, we can’t help but notice other forest life. On the forest floor, peeking out from between the dead leaves, are gelatinous masses I call “eyeballs of the forest”. They’re about eyeball size, clear jelly on the outside with a white mass visible within.
Andy Laman, the local guide helping us, tells us that this is a fungus, and the jelly protects the mushroom within until it is ready to emerge. He says that if you’re thirsty, you can consume the jelly. We didn’t try.
But what we might remember most about Camp 1 is the bathing facility — a pool in a clear mountain stream tumbling over rocks, in the midst of the rainforest. We’d be bathing in the cool water, look up to the stunning strength and peace of the forest and stream, and think: Amazing. This is Borneo.
Breaking News: EDY FOUND A HISPO TODAY! Sorry for shouting, but this is big news. Recall my post dreaming about the special jumping spiders we might find? I neglected to mention Hispo. It was such an unlikely prize that I hadn’t dared to dream it. Most species of Hispo are from Madagascar. There are only two species known outside Africa and the Seychelles — one from India, and one from Sumatra. The species from Sumatra is known from a single immature specimen. The adult female Edy found is therefore the first adult Hispo found east of India. Here is the beast:
And, Hispo is not just any jumping spider. It’s a member of the subfamily Hisponinae, which split off on the jumping spider evolutionary tree long ago, before the burst of diversification that gave us most of the species alive today. Thus, in some features hisponines are more like the ancestral jumping spider than like the familiar jumping spiders. In fact, they are the only living jumping spider group recognizable in the Baltic amber fossils, more than 40 million years old. And so, to make my excitement clearer, I’ll restate: this specimen is the only adult known east of India of this very strange and old group, the hisponines, and on top of that it’s almost certainly a species new to science.
We had been accumulating samples day by day of dozens of species of salticid spiders, collecting in a regimented way from tree trunks, leaf litter, and foliage. We’ve found many interesting species, probably many of which are new to science. I’ll give you an overview of what we’ve been finding in a future post. Despite all these salticid riches, none has made my jaw drop until today. When Edy showed it to me, asking what it was, I looked at it with my hand lens. I realized quickly it might be a Hispo, but I said: “Here, take it back, because I need to finish what I’m doing, and if I look more closely and confirm it’s a Hispo, I’ll stop caring about what I’m doing and it won’t get done”. I finished my task, then confirmed it was a Hispo, and the celebration began. We’re having ice cream tonight in honor of the find.
[Update: in 2014 we described this species, but decided that it and its other close relatives are not Hispo, but deserve a new genus. We named it Jerzego.]
Falling from above
In a previous post I told how we use a beating sheet — a sheet stretched with tent poles to catch spiders that fall from vegetation we’ve shaken or beaten. Whenever I do this, more falls onto the sheet than just spiders. Insects, centipedes, earthworms, crabs, onychophorans, dead leaves, and sticks are among the other things that land on the sheet. Earthworms? Yes, there is often soil and litter that accumulates between branches. Crabs? Yes, a terrestrial crab fell on my sheet a few days ago.
The most memorable things landing on my sheets over the years in various tropical places are these:
A poison arrow frog, Dendrobates. Very cute, but I did not encourage it to linger on my sheet.
A poisonous viper, Bothrops. See the story on the Beaty Museum’s blog.
Ant colonies. This happens several times a day. There are many tropical ants that make their nests in trees, and when the tree is shaken, the whole colony lands on the sheet. Or, half on the sheet and half on my head. Then I start counting 1, 2, 3, .. By 10, I’ve usually felt the first bite or sting. Of many.
Wasp nest. The rule: drop the beating sheet and run the other direction. Then, hope you can return in 10 minutes to retrieve the sheet.
And the new addition to this list from Mulu: a bat. The other day I beat a plant and saw this tightly bundled bat on my sheet. I called over Edy and Alex, who took this photo. Right after the photo, the bat turned over and flew away, perhaps in shock, but apparently unharmed:
What I carry
Every day, after I put on my long sleeve shirt and long pants (against mosquitoes and spines), I put on a belt that has two leather pouches. In one pouch will be the small vials into which I collect the spiders, and in the other pouch will be the vials full of newly-collected spiders. Then I put on my day pack and fanny pack, lace up my boots, grab my beating sheet and stick, and I’m off to find spiders.
Here’s what I have in my packs:
- 10x hand lens (loupe). Indispensable — spiders are small, and often we want to look for their distinguishing characteristics as we find them.
- paintbrush. See my post about collecting on tree trunks.
- leather gloves without the fingertips, to protect my hands but still let me manipulate small things. When beating vegetation, our hands are pushed into spines, rough branches, nasty insects, and other things I don’t want to know about.
- water in bottles. Also, electrolyte-drink powder. Much sweat is lost.
- sesame snaps, an old-fashioned and amazingly dense snack — I call them “lembas”.
- weird sandwich, invariably squashed. Today’s contained jam, chile peppers and whole peanuts. In the field, you have a license, and sometimes the necessity, to break the bounds of normalcy.
- sunscreen, bandages, iodine, mosquito repellant, water purifying tablets, painkillers, antihistamines. I almost never use sunscreen on these expeditions, as we are usually deep in the forest shade.
- eyeglass defogger. Foggy or wet eyeglasses are the bane of my tropical collecting. I am hot and sweaty, the air is hot and sweaty, the leaves are wet even if it isn’t raining, and so it is a constant struggle for me to maintain clear glasses. Contacts would solve it, if they would work for me.
- paper towels or tissues to wipe eyeglasses and for other emergencies.
- pens, pencils, paper for labels.
- 100 or more vials for spiders.
- GPS receiver, to record our location as data, and for safety. It’s dangerously easy to get lost in a tropical rainforest. Rarely can you see more than a 100 meters. Also, I bring an old-fashioned compass just in case.
- headlamp, for safety but also to look on trunks and ground in the dim light of an overcast day under the forest canopy.
- whistle, for safety
- walkie-talkie, for safety, and to coordinate sampling with team members
- spare batteries.
- extra beating sheet, in case the first one rips or gets too bloodstained. Bloodstained? Well, an exaggeration, but a few drops of blood fall occasionally. I’ll write a post on Vines and Spines to explain.
- zip top plastic bags to organize everything.
Much of my equipment is adorned with fluorescent tape. I even put some on my eyeglasses when I’m in the field. Colleagues have teased me for it, but items dropped are hard to find on the messy forest floor. I’d rather look outrageous than lose my eyeglasses, GPS, or precious beating stick.
Entangled and pierced
You’re walking through a Borneo rainforest, keeping your eyes focused on shrubs and tree trunks that might be good opportunities for spider hunting, and suddenly your forward progress is halted. Three possible explanations: (1) You’re in one of those nightmares where you keep trying to get somewhere but mysteriously can’t move. (2) You’ve become entangled in vines across your path. (3) A rattan palm has you in its spiny clutches. No nightmares yet for me on this expedition, but the other two occur several times each day.
Vines (or “lianas”) crisscross a tropical forest like a tangled spider web, at all heights from the ground to the forest canopy. Indeed, there are so many lianas among the trees, some as thick as a small tree’s trunk, that when one tree falls from a storm or decay, it may pull down surrounding trees by their connecting lianas. For me, raised in the temperate zone, the idea of so many vines is unexpected. I expect plants to grow vertically, not diagonally or horizontally. I don’t pay enough attention for lianas as I walk, and often I am suddenly held as in this photo of my entangled leg. I rarely trip, but I am sometimes befuddled as to how to untie the knot I am in.
Vines are stubborn foes, but not nearly so cruel as the terror of the Bornean jungle, rattan palms. The central rib of each multi-part leaf extends beyond the leaf as a long filament reaching into space. These filaments can cross a meter or more, linking to another plant like a liana’s tendrils. It would be just another vine entangling me — except that along the filament’s length are many small backward-pointing spines. It’s as if the forest were criss-crossed by meters-long hacksaw blades. When one catches my clothes, I feel a sharp tug and I’m stuck.
Sometimes, I can twirl around and I’ll get unstuck, but other times I have to try to grab the spiny tendril (gingerly) and pull it away. Of course, sometimes it’s not my clothes but my skin that the spines dig into as I charge through the forest. Luckily, most of the blood lost has been from my hands, not my neck. I’d mentioned in a previous post that Edy voted the leeches as her biggest annoyance; for me, it’s the rattan palms.
Why do rattan palms have these tendrils that inflict suffering, apparently gratuitously, meters from the plant’s body? They don’t seem to make sense as protective devices against animals. Instead, the spines serve to keep hold on other plants that the palm uses for support. But, why might the palm want to borrow support from other plants?
Look at a forest, and a question might occur to you: why do the trees invest so much into those tall trunks that don’t photosynthesize and don’t pull in water and minerals? If only the trees could all agree to be short, they could divert the resources that make the trunk instead into flowers and fruit. But, of course, they don’t cooperate, but rather compete, and their competition for precious light compels them to build massive trunks to lift against gravity and outreach their neighbors.
Lianas that rise up through the forest along the trunks of trees are, in one sense, parasites. They avoid investing in a trunk, but can still reach high into the light by using the infrastructure built by the trees. I like to think of them as “gravity parasites”. (Actually, this name isn’t quite right, as they are parasites of the effort against gravity, but “gravity parasites” is more poetic.) Rattan palms play the same game, maintaining with their spines their hold on upward-growing plants. Plants play cruel games with each other and with animals. And you thought plants were so innocent.
Reading my previous posts about spiders we’ve found, you might wonder why I seem uncertain whether a spider we find is new to science. Why don’t we just get out our trusty Field Guide to the Jumping Spiders of Borneo? Sorry, nothing like that exists. And, even after we get the spiders back to the lab, with our good microscopes, it still won’t be easy to figure out if they are new. In the technical scientific literature there has never been a compilation that describes the known jumping spiders of Borneo. What we have are scattered articles published over the last centuries, each reporting on a few species found. Usually there are so few details published that the only way to confirm an identification is to compare your specimens to those specimens, archived in museums, that were described in the publications.
It might be a lot of work to figure out if something we find in Borneo is new. However, it’s not as bad as it might be. Back in 1997, Polish arachnologist Jerzy Proszynski realized that if we had a compilation of all of the drawings and photographs from hundreds of publications, we could much more easily identify our jumping spiders. He set about building this compilation, a “diagnostic drawings library”, and put it on the internet (see here, as well as an older, but perhaps easier to use version here). It has become an indispensable resource for those of us working with jumping spiders. This goes to show that not all important collective projects on the internet are invented by the young: Professor Proszynski was 62 years old in 1997, and yet he could see that the World Wide Web, then fairly new, was the future.
Proszynski’s compilation doesn’t include good drawings of all known species, because for many species no good drawings have been published by any author, ever. Eventually we will have full descriptions and genetic data for jumping spiders compiled and available in databases and online. In the meantime, we have the scattered literature, Proszynski’s compilation, and the museum collections. Most urgently, we need to get out into the field to find the spiders before they disappear.
Our 17 days at Mulu have passed. Today, we took the day off from sampling to rest and pack up for the next stage of our expedition, a shorter stay of 8 days at Lambir Hills National Park.
Each day we have sampled and processed so intensely that we fall in bed exhausted. It was only today that I found the time to review what we’ve found at Mulu. As we go, I take photos of every species collected, and try to organize the photos to act as a growing “field guide” to the species at the site. We don’t know the names of most of the species, but we can still recognize them by their appearances. After each day’s collecting, I try to match each species collected to the current “field guide” to see if it’s new for us and needs to be photographed. I had been getting behind at organizing the photos, but today I cleared up the backlog.
My preliminary estimate of the number of jumping spider species we found at Mulu: 116. This is a pretty impressive number for one family of spiders at one site. It’s fewer than we found last year in our similar sampling at Yasuní, Ecuador, where we estimated 153 species of salticids. I’m sure there are many species we missed at both sites, but I also suspect this difference is real. In my experience, for jumping spiders there is no place like the Amazon basin.
We are nonetheless thrilled to have such a solid sample from Mulu. The scientific literature reports only about 100 species from all of Borneo, and yet we’ve found almost 150 in our whole trip. This shows how poorly studied is the island: we can exceed the published reports of the last 200 years with only 3 weeks of collecting.
In honor of the species we found, some awards are deserved. Here they are. Remember, despite how different these look, they are all jumping spiders, recognizable by the classic pattern of eyes.
The commonest salticid on leaf litter, genus unknown (possibly a hasariine [Update: we discovered that this isn’t a hasariine, but rather a member of a related group, the nannenines. In particular, it’s an undescribed species of Idastrandia.]):
The commonest on foliage, Bathippus (female):The commonest on tree trunks, Laufeia:
The most colorful, Siler:
Most like a tank, Porius:
Most convincing ant mimic, Myrmarachne:
Scariest legs, Harmochirus:
Longest legs, Viciria:
Best jumper, Bavia:
We were at Lambir Hills National Park for the last week, without Internet connectivity — hence the blog going dark. In past decades, doing field work in tropical rainforests always meant being entirely disconnected from the rest of the world. We would reemerge not knowing whether Canada had sunk into the sea.
With fond recollection of those old days, I enjoyed this week’s peaceful isolation. We did appreciate, however, Lambir’s modern perks of electricity, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing.
At Lambir we found many of the same species as we had at Mulu, but some, like these delicate Orthrus, we hadn’t seen before. The female is translucent green, making her almost invisible on the undersides of palm fronds in the forest, where they live. The male is bigger (this is rare in spiders) and sports a striking black head and first pair of legs.
Now that I’m Internet-reconnected, I’ll have more posts over the next several days.
Replaying the Tape of Life
Our lives at Lambir were more or less as at Mulu — breakfast by 8 and in the field by 9. Hike anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Record latitude/longitude and other data. Sample intensely for 40 minutes, focusing on either tree trunks, foliage, or the ground. Record more data, and repeat for another 40 minute session, then again, then again, for a total of 6 sessions. Add time to take notes, have some lunch, wipe sweat, readjust gear, and it’s about 4 pm by the time we get back to camp.
We are overheated and absolutely exhausted, with barely enough energy to take showers. Then we have to process the specimens, which involves photography and preservation, usually until after 9 pm. We do have a break for dinner, but little time to relax otherwise. It takes a toll on us.
We structure our sampling by habitat to be able to standardize person-hours of effort in each habitat. This lets us quantify each species’ preference for habitat — for instance, we will recognize a species as a trunk-dweller by the fact that we find many more specimens of it per hour effort on trunks than we do on the ground. Learning about habitat preferences is key for us to get a very basic idea of each species’ ecology.
And, learning each species’ ecology is a key part of a big question we are asking with this study. I have characterized this expedition as one to find undiscovered biodiversity, and indeed that is a major goal. But we have another goal: we are comparing the basic habitat adaptations of jumping spiders in Borneo to those in South America. Back in the lab Edy will carefully measure body shapes to see if in general trunk-dwellers tend to differ from ground-dwellers and foliage dwellers — do they tend to be flatter and narrower and with shorter legs? — and whether any pattern is repeated in both the Sarawak and Ecuador samples.
What makes this particularly interesting is that the Sarawak jumping spider species evolved largely independently from the Ecuador species. In an earlier post I had commented that biodiversity is local, and that in the case of salticids, large evolutionary groups tend to be local. This means that not only are individual species in Ecuador distinct from those in Sarawak, but the whole diversification of jumping spiders in Asia happened more or less independently from that in South America, like a separate evolutionary experiment.
Stephen Jay Gould once pondered the thought experiment, “if we could rewind the tape of the history of life, then play it again, would it come out the same way the next time?” (For the younger readers, ask someone older what is tape and why one would have to rewind it…) Gould’s expectation was that it would come out quite differently.
To explore this fundamental question about predictability versus contingency in evolution, we can’t rewind the tape. But sometimes, different branches of species lineages in the evolutionary tree of life were presented, separately, with similar challenges. Each of these lineages therefore played its own separate tape as its evolution unfolded. By comparing the histories of each lineage, we can see whether indeed the story had the same ending each time.
Because the Asian jumping spiders diversified independently from the South American ones, two separate copies of Gould’s tape were played, one on each continent. Are the stories the same? Do trunk dwellers show the same adaptations in Sarawak as they do in Ecuador? Are there as many trunk dwellers in both places? Did they take as many million years to adapt in both places? If not, why not? These are some of the questions we want to answer.
More Hispo at Lambir
One big piece of news from Lambir is that we found more Hispo. I previously posted, with great excitement, the news that Edy had found a Hispo female in Mulu. I’m pretty certain it represents a species new to science, but even more exciting, it is the first adult hisponine anyone has found east of India. Well, at Lambir she found the male of the species, the first male hisponine known outside of Africa and Indian Ocean islands. Here’s the male — it looks pretty much like the female.
Fred Wanless, the last to publish studies of Hispo, noted that the Asian species are quite distinct from the African ones, but since no male specimens were known from Asia, he couldn’t make any firm conclusions. Structures specific to males are especially helpful in determining spider relationships. Associated structures in females are harder to study and interpret, and so are not as well understood. Now that we have found a male from Asia, we can finally understand the Asian Hispo species and whether they might in fact be an evolutionary lineage distinct from the African Hispo.
But, it didn’t stop there. I found a second species, apparently the species known from Sumatra, Hispo alboguttata. The Sumatran specimen is immature, as, alas, are the two specimens I found. One is photographed here. She’s a beauty.
Both Edy’s species and Hispo alboguttata were found on tree trunks. We looked at many tree trunks, but found only these few specimens. Even though we found no adults of H. alboguttata, it’s still invaluable to have these fresh specimens for study. And now, we think we have broken the mystique of Asian Hispo. With our observations on location and habitat, we think it will now be possible for other biologists to find more. [Update: As noted above, these species are now placed in the genus Jerzego, which is closely related to Hispo.]
Geometrical Jumping spiders
Jumping spiders (salticids) are so diverse, it’s difficult to choose how to organize and express all the different kinds. To convey what we’ve found in Borneo, let’s start with shapes — geometrical shapes.
First, the circle. Here are two round jumping spiders from our travels in Borneo. Pystira, which we called affectionately “the bumblebee”, and Simaetha.
It’s hard to find square jumping spiders, but here’s my attempt. This is a male that I think is Porius.
Triangular jumping spiders? Both Uroballus and Ptocasius are triangular, with the abdomen ending in a point.
A natural progression from circle to square to triangle might come next to line. Well, jumping spiders do have width, but these two are pretty thin. First, a male Viciria.
Next, a species I don’t recognize, though it might be near Bavia. We call it the “clown” for its bold black and white markings. It lives on palm leaves.
And finally, we arrive to a point. This tiny jumping spider may be related to Simaetha. It’s a polished black color, and only about 1.5 mm long. It’s bigger than the period at the end of a sentence, but not by much.
Trees that grow from sky to ground
The first time I arrived to the Amazon rainforest decades ago, I was astounded at the intensity. Everywhere I looked, there was a story unfolding — predation, decay, camouflage, parasitism. As a biologist, I felt as if I’d arrived to the center of the biological world, like a country boy arriving wide-eyed to New York City or Beijing. Tropical rainforests have high pressure, relentless ecological drama. Even as the magnificent trees here in Borneo reach for the sun, termites are gnawing at their trunks, too impatient to wait for the tree’s death.
Even the plants are murderous. Trees grow from the ground toward the sky, correct? Well, not all. Strangler figs grow from the sky toward the ground. A strangler fig begins life as an epiphyte, a small plant perched on the branches of another tree. It drops roots from the canopy down toward the ground. As it grows, it drops more and more roots, which gradually thicken and begin to surround the trunk of the host tree. Eventually these coalesced roots can form a sheath around the host trunk, the host tree dies, and the strangler fig stands on its coalesced roots. The coalesced roots form a cylinder, hollow in the center where the host trunk used to be. Here’s a strangler fig we saw at Mulu, its “trunk” like a braided rope.
We humans find ourselves part of the drama. I’ve already posted about leeches, and you can imagine the mosquitoes. Most of the things that want to eat you in a tropical forest are not tigers, but tiny things, from fungi to bugs. “Hi, we are here to recycle you. Are you ready? May we have a piece?”
A tropical forest is constantly turning over, so dynamic that if you try to sit still, you will be moved anyway, cell by cell. One of the reasons that clearing tropical forests for agriculture usually yields disappointing results is that their nutrient richness does not extend deep into the soil, as in a temperate prairie, but rather is bound up almost entirely in the living organisms. The nutrients are traded quickly from one life to another. Remove the organisms, and the richness is gone.
Tropical forests may sound scary, but they are amazing. And really, you decay slowly enough to enjoy the forest while you last.
The spiders who wouldn’t be
With the field work done, our attention turns to handling all of the specimens. We have barely had time to glance at most of them. My curiosity to peruse them under a microscope is strong, as I want to figure out what we got, but that will have to wait until after we get home to the lab in Canada. Indeed, it will have to wait longer than that, as it will take weeks to properly sort and label the specimens. Patience, Wayne.
In the meantime, there is the preparation of the specimens for the flight home. After we catch the specimens, we preserve them that day in 95% ethanol. Traditionally spiders were preserved in 80% ethanol, which is better for studying their body structures (95% makes them brittle and prone to break), but 95% is much better for preserving DNA for modern phylogenetic analysis. Ethanol of that percentage is flammable and a problem to take on airplanes, which means that our primary preparation for travel is to drain the ethanol from the hundreds of vials. The specimens stay just wet enough to stay in good condition, and we’ll refill the ethanol right after arriving home.
Going through the vials, draining each one, gives me time to recall some of the amazing species we found. Some, strangely, look and act as if they were something other than jumping spiders. I have posted photos of some of the ant-like salticids already, but I want to show you one more. This is Agorius, a jumping spider that has its body constricted is several places, like extra waists. This makes its body appear to be divided like an ant’s body. It also holds its first legs up as if they were an ant’s antennae.
Some spiders look like beetles. Here’s one we haven’t yet identified, though we think it is near Ligurra and Simaetha. She’s got a stout body with a blue sheen, and she holds up her second pair of legs, perhaps to appear as antennae. Alex suggested she looks like a weevil, with the front legs held like the snout projecting in front of the antennae.
But perhaps the most surprising is Orsima. Back in the 1970’s, Jonathan Reiskind described its peculiar appearance and behavior: he noted that the back end of the spider looks like the head of an insect. The abdomen has a constriction, as if the neck of the insect, while the spinnerets –the little appendages spiders use to make silk — are held and jiggled as if they were the antennae and mouthparts of the insect’s head. The spider raises and lowers the abdomen rhythmically, and all in all it’s rather hypnotic to watch.
Now, I’m sure that natural selection led these salticids to appear to be things other than salticids. But, in my opinion, salticids look just fine as salticids.
The Music of Biodiversity
On the plane flight home, I feel the afterglow of five weeks of walking on paths in Bornean rainforest, of living smells and stubborn itches, of jumping spider faces looking up at me. So many little faces, so many newly met. I’d never seen a living Hispo before, nor most of the other species we found. It’s a wonderful feeling, to have my mind full of all these spiders.
Indulge me, please, as I explain that last comment (mind full of spiders — wonderful?), and tell you why I am a scientist. When asked about our motivations, we scientists are trained to answer that we’re interested in such-and-such conceptually challenging question because of its broad applicability to this-and-that. These are valid answers as to why these studies should be done. These are the reasons resources should be invested in this research. But, is that really why most of us are scientists?
When that Phidippus audax female looked up at me 4 decades ago, I didn’t think “Ah, what a perfect study organism to experiment on!” I was, simply, fascinated by her actions, by her reactions to the world around her. I was amazed by her eyes, her metallic green jaws and by the intricately diverse pelage arranged over her body. Seeing her, a whole world opened up, the world of Phidippus audax, as deep and detailed as the world of any species — dogs, or roses — but altogether mysterious.
But, it was when I began to look at other jumping spiders that I heard the music. I found other jumping spider species with forms and colors that differed from hers just a bit, or a lot. Her singular nature extended through her colleagues to a melody, to rhythms, variations on a theme full of patterns and yet surprises. As beautiful as an ornamented male salticid may be, ready to dance to the female, what caught my eye were the patterns in diversity. Here is a plate from my doctoral thesis, showing a part of the spider’s body and how it appears in each of 35 different species (2 are the same species). Not only is each a small, abstract sculpture, but together the array of them almost dances as my eye moves from one species to the next.
There are moments when I feel I am not a scientist at all, but a curator of the most beautiful art gallery ever assembled. Each species is a work of art. Together, they make the music of diversity.
The static variation of forms we see around us makes but a short moment in this four-billion-years symphonic epic. Now that we know that Life diversified by the splitting of ancestral species repeatedly, genetic lineages branching to form the evolutionary tree of life, we can begin to hear the entire symphony. A single voice, complex in overtones, sings. It splits into two voices, almost the same, but they begin to diverge. And so the voices proliferate into a chorus as the tree of life branches. It would be cacophony, except for three principles. They are all bound by the integrity demanded for survival. They will interact, ecologically, in counterpoint, or dissonance. And, in different parts of the evolutionary tree, voices will stumble on the same melody, converging as they solve life’s challenges similarly. The complexity of this evolutionary symphony is overwhelming. But there is pattern, a dynamic pattern, and hence music. This is the beauty of biodiversity. This is why I am a scientist.
Leaving Sarawak, the music of jumping spider diversity is stuck in my head.
Jumping spider rainbow
Returning from the Borneo expedition, I can look forward to months of sifting through specimens, taking data from them, and analyzing. We will be focused on what the specimens can tell us scientifically, but as we are doing this, each specimen will be a souvenir. We will see the label and be transported back to that trail, to that day.
Even though I’m back in Canada, I have a few more blog posts in me, remembering the spiders and the trip. The first of these: a rainbow. You can find any color you want among the jumping spiders, and here, color by color, is a Bornean jumping spider rainbow.I am frequently breathless at the beauty of salticids, even after all these years. Each species I see for the first time is a jewel.
Top ten animal encounters
A tropical rainforest is so biologically intense that you can’t help but have many meetings with its inhabitants. Here, some of my most memorable encounters with animals in Borneo, presented as a top ten list.
10. Pill millipedes are big — maybe 4 cm long — and heavy, and yet they roll up when disturbed, just like the pill bugs back home in Canada. They aren’t closely related. Pill bugs are crustaceans, while pill millipedes are, well, millipedes.
9. This lizard sat on a tree trunk, inches away from me as I brushed the trunk for spiders.
8. A cicada lands on my rice at the Mulu cafeteria.
7. Edy, Alex and I each received wasp stings. Mine was on my lip, and provided a more dramatic photograph than Edy’s and Alex’s swellings. I was stung simply walking down the trail.
6. At Camp 1 in Mulu, inside the shelter, there was this dry leaf carefully hung against the wall. A female Gelotia, one of our jumping spiders, had made a nest and was tending her babies. We left her unbothered, as our camp mascot.
On the morning we left to return to park headquarters, I was considering whether to collect her, but discovered that in her place was now a different jumping spider, a notably fat Bavia female. The nest and babies of Gelotia were gone. We don’t have enough evidence to convict, but the Bavia is strongly suspected of eating both the mother Gelotia and all of her babies.
5. Rajah Brooke’s birdwing butterflies were common every day on the main trail north at Mulu. Beautiful.
4. On our last day at Mulu, expert guide Syria Lejau Malang led us to Deer Cave, a spectacularly enormous cavern with millions of bats chittering and producing guano. The guano on the cave floor is deep enough for a human to swim in, but the only swimmers in the guano were the millions of cockroaches and other small creatures. Here’s a photo taken by Syria — the reddish material on the ground is guano.
3. Leeches. Can’t forget the leeches.
Hmmmm. No need to show another photo…
2. I posted about unexpected things that fall when we shake vegetation to find spiders. One of the last days at Mulu, I shook a tree to get spiders out, and debris fell on my head. Suddenly I felt something in my ear — something was trying desperately to scurry back into a hole. It was the strangest sensation, feeling something rooting around in there, sounding very loud as it struck my eardrum. I brushed at it and shook my head, and this is what fell out. A 4 cm long centipede.
1. And, for my top encounter, another animal dropping from a tree. After shaking a tree for spiders, I felt something wriggling under my shirt. I lifted the bottom of my shirt, and this fell out.
What is it? My first thought was, oh no, not another leech. It twitched and wriggled, but not like a leech. It felt too firm. I looked at it more closely, and realized what it was. It was the tail of a lizard. With the tail still twitching, the living lizard body must be nearby. I opened up my shirt further, and out dropped the gecko.
The gecko must have fallen down my shirt, felt squeezed as if by a predator, and autotomized its tail as a diversionary tactic. I assume that it is out in the forest, working on regrowing its tail, as I write this.
How many of us have dreamed of using a time machine to see living dinosaurs in their Mesozoic prime? We are left with only lifeless fossil bones. How wonderful it would be to bring back a living dinosaur, or at least a preserved specimen, or even a photograph, or even the memory of a glaring eye! We can’t of course, because they are long gone, and we don’t have time machines.
In 500 years we will wish we had time machines to come back to 2012. We will look at the early third millennium as the last days of the Garden of Eden, the last days when biodiversity was largely intact. In 500 years, we may very well find ourselves in a post-biodiversity world. Intense rainforests, vibrant deserts, and bustling coral reefs will probably seem as distant to us as big dinosaurs are today.
Some days, I imagine that I am a time traveller, come back from 500 years in the future. I have a few years in which to do my field work before I return. How lucky I am to have been entrusted by my 26th century colleagues with this task, but how frustrating that I will have time to just scratch the surface. So many locations, so many species, will remain unsampled.
Once I am done sampling, I need to send the specimens 500 years into the future. I can’t send them live, but even to send good quality specimens is wonderful for 26th century biologists, for species that would otherwise be known from fossils, or in the case of small spiders, not at all.
What does my time machine look like? Well, I have good news for you. There is a time machine to send specimens 500 years into the future. It’s called a natural history museum. Those who work in natural history museums do indeed think in terms of centuries — they see theirs as an almost sacred task, transcending the fluctuating fashions of the decades.
But, I have bad news. It will take 500 years of curatorial salaries to get the specimens to the 26th century. It’s not much compared to the expenditures of space exploration or molecular biology, but science funding agencies normally don’t focus on centuries-long projects. How do you think we’ll feel in 500 years if we fail to preserve specimens of 2012 biodiversity?
Of course, it would be far better to keep habitats intact and biodiversity alive in the wild. But, I’m not counting on our having even half the necessary wisdom. And so, next chance I get, I’ll be lacing up my boots, strapping on my bags, grabbing my beating sheet and stick, and heading down the trail.
Thank you Sarawak
In our last few days in Borneo, Edy and I gave a public lecture at the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, a research institute that specializes on bioprospecting potential pharmaceuticals from forest plants and other organisms, using both traditional knowledge and high-tech testing methods. It’s an impressive facility from a scientific perspective. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to tell the public directly about what we found. If I have any regret about this trip, it’s not finding more opportunities to tell the people of Sarawak about the great spiders they have. Well, the Internet and lots of photos will eventually solve that.
It’s time to say our thank-you’s for the expedition, and sign off. The Sarawak Forestry Department and the staff at Gunung Mulu, Lambir Hills, Kubah, and Bako National Parks offered their collaboration through permits and logistics, which made the entire expedition possible. The infrastructure available to us at our field sites was excellent. At Mulu, where we concentrated our sampling, our work was made considerably easier by the assistance offered us by Brian Clark, Jeremy Clark, and the other park staff. Andyson Laman was a great guide on our Camp 1 foray. Our work was made more fun by our chats with Syria Lejau Malang and Magdalena Sorger, though with the latter I will have to disagree about the beauty of salticids versus ants. Especially ants that bite.
Ch’ien Lee helped us arrange the expedition in the first place, and introduced us to the Bornean forest. I would like to thank most especially Alex Ang, who took a month off of his normal life in Kuching to accompany us into the forest. Alex made an important contribution to our success. I also can’t forget a big thank you to NSERC Canada, for the funding that enabled this expedition.
Sarawak was good to us in many ways. It was easy to get around, safe, with friendly people. We found professionalism, cleanliness and good organization everywhere.
Finally, and you might have seen this coming, I’d like to thank the spiders. I can’t individually thank all 175 species of jumping spiders that I estimate we found in Sarawak, but I will show you some of their faces. As you look at these, think about my previous post about the music of biodiversity, about variations on a theme. And, remember the eyes. That’s how you know it’s a jumping spider.
The original posts:
- Undiscovered biodiversity
- The guests of honor: Salticidae
- Team Salticid
- Mulu National Park
- Dreaming about salticid spiders
- Jumping spiders in the forest
- Beating around the bushes
- Spiders in leaf litter
- A Vertical Life
- Leeches and eyeballs
- Breaking News!
- Falling from above
- What I carry
- Entangled and pierced
- Scattered literature
- Mulu wrap-up
- Lambir Hills
- Replaying the Tape of Life
- More Hispo at Lambir
- Geometrical Jumping spiders
- Trees that grow from sky to ground
- The spiders who wouldn’t be
- The Music of Biodiversity
- Jumping spider rainbow
- Top ten animal encounters
- Time traveller
- Thank you Sarawak
Photograph of Wayne and Edy collecting © 2012 Ch’ien Lee