The logic of Siberia

Why exactly am I going to Siberia? I explained in a previous post that Eurasia holds a diversity of Pellenes that’s important for me to study, for comparison with North America’s Habronattus jumping spiders. But of all the places in Eurasia, why Siberia?

First, work by Russian colleagues has made the Siberian fauna known and accessible. Dmitri Logunov (now at the Manchester Museum) did extensive field work in the same region around 1990. He, Yuri Marusik, and other colleagues published several important papers on Pellenes in the central Asian region from Siberia to Iran. This gives us a solid idea of Siberia’s Pellenes species, and of precise localities we could visit. Galina Azarkina, working at the SZMN-IEIE-SB-RAS in Novosibirsk, knows the region well, though she’s focused primarily on a different group of jumping spiders, the aelurillines.

Second, southern Siberia has just the right combination of species to give us key information. It has all of the basic Pellenes diversity we might find elsewhere in Eurasia, but it is also the only place to find a special target, Pellenes logunovi. As you might guess, this species was named in honour of Dmitri, by Yuri and colleagues.

Here’s the reason that P. logunovi is so special: Among Pellenes and related genera, two groups are restricted to the Americas: the spectacular Habronattus, and a distinctive group of several Pellenes species that includes the familiar Canadian P. peninsularis. The peninsularis group and Habronattus appear very closely related, and indeed recent evidence hints that the peninsularis group might be within Habronattus. This would discombobulate our view of Habronattus evolution, and so we want to confirm or refute it. P. logunovi is unusual among Eurasian Pellenes in appearing to be very similar to the peninsularis group. If it is the closest Eurasian species to the peninsularis group and Habronattus, it could help resolve whether Habronattus has the peninsularis group within it.

Original description of Pellenes logunovi by Marusik, Hippa, and Koponen, 1996


Now I’ll go (even more) technical, for the salticid geeks (the rest of you can cover your eyes). The Harmochirina fall into two groups, the harmochirines sensu stricto (Harmochirus, Bianor, Sibianor, etc.) and the pellenines (Pellenes, Neaetha, Havaika, Habronattus, and a few others). Some unpublished (and incomplete) molecular data hint to the following:

  • Several subgenera of Pellenes (Pellenes, Pelpaucus, Pellap) form a monophyletic group, the true Pellenes.
  • The American Pellenattus are closer to Habronattus than to Pellenes, which would likely lead to Pellenattus being to move out of Pellenes as its own genus.
  • Havaika is the sister to Pellenattus plus Habronattus.
  • The African Pellenes with a filamentous or absent tegular apophysis are even more distant from the true Pellenes.

The Siberian specimens will not only help to test these hypotheses, but also help place other subgroups of Pellenes (Pelmultus, Pelmirus). This will leave only a few pieces of the puzzle to get, most importantly Neaetha and similar genera with a very long third leg.

Reliving my youth in a parallel universe

One of the most vividly colourful memories I carry is of two jumping spiders: a male and a female Habronattus viridipes, mating, on the leaf of a milkweed. I was 14 years old, along an abandoned road outside of Dwight, Ontario, and I was entranced. The male was stunning: yellow-green front legs with a delicate fringe of white hairs, and a third leg whose knee was enlarged into a triangular yellowish flag. I don’t think I’d ever seen spiders mating before. This, and the pink-bummed Habronattus decorus I had seen the year before, were my introductions to Habronattus, a diverse and wondrous group typically found on rocks, leaves and sticks on ground well-lit by the sun. They became a fascination of my youth. I spent so many hours scanning sunny ground for Habronattus that I can still feel the sun on my back from decades ago.

Here are drawings I did of H. viridipes several years later, with close ups of the first pair of legs (green) and the third (with the triangle).

Habronattus viridipes male, drawn in 1978.

A few metres from the H. viridipes at Dwight we (my brother David and I) found another species of jumping spider, Pellenes peninsularis. This species lives on the rock outcrops of the Canadian shield, modest colours matching the rock’s grey. Here’s a drawing of the male:

Pellenes peninsularis male, drawn ca. 1978.

Pellenes peninsularis brings a different set of emotions. While H. viridipes represented fantasy creatures, P. peninsularis represented family: humble, secure, predictable. David and I got to know it well, in part because the rock outcrops at Dwight were across the highway from where our father would go to catch minnows for fishing bass.

Despite the contrast in their appearance, Pellenes peninsularis and Habronattus viridipes are pretty closely related on the jumping spider evolutionary tree. Indeed, it seems that the several dozen species of Pellenes collectively form the sister group (or sister groups) to the 100 species of Habronattus.

Since those early days, I’ve done a lot of research on Habronattus, but very little on Pellenes. It’s time to go back to Pellenes. I’m now working with Marshal Hedin and Damian Elias to look in more detail at the remarkable diversification of Habronattus. To fully understand it, we need to make comparisons with their close relatives, i.e. Pellenes. While there are a few Pellenes in the Americas, most of their diversity is in Eurasia and Africa. This is one of the contrasts between North America and Eurasia: the former has many Habronattus species, and few Pellenes, while the latter has many Pellenes species, and no Habronattus.

And so, in going to Siberia, I will be looking in the same way as I did as a teenager — peering at sun-soaked ground on mountain sides, prairies, and forest edges, watching for tiny sunbathers on rocks or hoppers on sticks. It will be like reliving my youth, but in a parallel universe populated by a diversity of Pellenes rather than Habronattus.

Westward to Siberia

From western North America, where I live, to Siberia, where I will be in one week, is only a short hop across the Bering Strait. I’ve never been to Russia. In my imagination, the landscape of Siberia is very much like that of British Columbia: hills, conifer forests, bears, wolves, deer. While the two areas share many species (or very closely related species), there are some notable differences in their faunas of the animals I study: jumping spiders. I’m going to Siberia to see jumping spider species I’ve never seen before.

I’ll arrive to Novosibirsk, where I’ll meet up with Dr. Galina Azarkina of the Institute of Systematics and Ecology of Animals, of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, with whom I’ve planned this expedition. To be honest, she has done considerably more planning than I have, organizing much of the logistics. We will first do, as a warm up, a few days of field work near the Kazakh border (2 in the map). Then, she, I, and a few of her colleagues will travel south and southeast from Novosibirsk (1) to the Altai (3) and Tuva (4), mountainous areas along the Mongolian border. Her primary target will be aelurilline jumping spiders; mine will be Pellenes.

Novosibirsk (1), and the places we’ll do field work.

I’m excited about this trip. The idea of Siberian field work occurred to me only a few months ago, and yet the roots of my excitement go back to my teenage years. I’ll explain that in a subsequent post.

I am already mostly packed. Ready are hand lenses, beating sheets, camera, pens, field notebooks, etc., etc., etc. — so many things. The “to do” list is still long, but my equipment and my brain are gradually getting organized. Westward ho!