26 September 2012

I am Arachnophobic

    Hello, my name is Jon and I am arachnophobic. When I mention that I work with spiders and am arachnophobic many people question how it works. I myself sometimes question how I manage it and why my arachnophobia excludes Salticids. It wasn't always that way; any and all spiders got swift “justice” underneath my foot or beneath a rolled up magazine or newspaper.

My slow transformation from complete arachnophobia to working with spiders began sophomore year of college in an Introduction to Zoology class.

   Matt was looking for a student volunteer to help him with his research, somehow I volunteered. My first trip into the field with Matt was an icy shock into the world of spiders. Matt had set up a grid system of marking flags with small vials turned upside down taped to them. The idea is that Salticids, which don't build webs but instead make nests, would use the vials as substrate for their nests and we would come along and coax the spiders out of them. So around dusk, Matt and I arrived at our first set of traps. Matt calmly showed me what we were doing and then let me at it. I will admit, I was deathly frightened that the salticids would jump out and attack me as soon as I turned the flags upside down to tease them out, but I slowly realized that this was mental overreaction. After enduring two months of this “torture” I was finally coming to appreciate the creatures I was collecting.

   Once winter had set in, I was then tasked with identifying what we had collected. Little did I know how much identification I would be doing over the next three years! The dichotomous key was difficult to understand at first as most of the terms were completely new to me (have no fear, we'll make ours easy to understand as you'll see below). Much of my time was spent looking up what the labium was and if it was wider then the sternum or not or trying to keep the names and order of the eyes straight.

Lateral view of Salticid eye locations

   But slowly I became familiar with the key and soon was able to locate multiple morphological features that I would need during my initial inspection of the specimen. From that point on, I rapidly learned the frustrations of working with specimens that were tiny, some only a few millimeters. Trying to tease the chelicerae and fangs open to see if and how many retromarginal teeth were present, is the PME closer to the ALE or PLE, is patella-tibia 3 longer or shorter then patella-tibia 4, how many macrosetae are on tibia 1?

Found on an immature Marpissa.  PS: There are only supposed to be eight macrosetae! (Photo by Jonathan Knudsen)

It was during the first year of identifying that I discovered the two steps that I hated the most: Step 33 and Step 58. These are two steps that require the specimen to be sexually mature, and both involve the shapes and structures of the embolus and epigynum.

   As we begin work on the key for our guide, one of our main goals is to make it easy to understand and use. Instead of using technical jargon and details about each spider, we plan on using easier to see morphological traits and terms to key each species out. In a true dichotomous key, each species keys out in only one place. However, because we plan on taking a broader view of each species, multiple species may key out the same. This may seem like a problem, but we think it will be easier to say, “It may be Spider A (pg. XX), Spider B (pg. XX), or Spider C (pg. XX)” and then comparing our photos to their specimens to make the final species identification. Many of the specimens we've collected are fairly unique looking, so any confusion during the keying process can be sorted out using our photos.

   I have enjoyed being a contributor to this guide and now to this blog. I look forward to continuing our work on this project and keeping you updated as we progress. It has been a fun challenge so far and it will continue to be. Keep you AME's peeled for my next posting!