Magic rediscovered

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. There is an implicit shift of observer here, from those who make the technology (to whom it isn’t magic) to those who see the technology for the first time (to whom it looks exactly like magic). As an evolutionary biologist, I would suggest a generalization of this: “Any sufficiently advanced creative process generates products that are indistinguishable from magic.” Natural selection is one such creative process, and its products often seem as magic before we get a chance to study them.

As a 25 year old biologist I went on a grand expedition to Mexico with Stewart Peck, Jarmila Kukalova-Peck, Bob Anderson, and Mike Kaulbars. We drove from Ottawa to Chiapas and back to Canada. The trip was full of new experiences for me, but there was a singular moment I’ll always remember — the capture of a jumping spider on the road from Valle Nacional to Oaxaca City. Along a path in the cloud forest at about 1250 metres elevation, I found a handsome male spider with black, white and red markings, and a little brush of black hairs on the tip of the first leg that made it look like he was carrying a semaphore flag. When I put it in a vial to look at it, I saw a glow of delicate sky blue metallic hairs shimmering on the femora of his first legs. A sense of magic overcame me, the first time I’d experienced it. How could something like that exist without magic? The glow of blue was otherworldly. Of course, evolutionary biology has found that sexual selection can make such things exist, but when first encountering a marvel like this, magic springs to mind.

Thirty four years later I find myself in Mexico again, retracing some of the same paths. With considerable excitement we arrived to the same site to look for this blue-legged marvel. The team spread out in search of magic. In the first few minutes I found what I’m pretty sure are juveniles of the species, but no males. It was morning, and the ground and plants were still warming up, so we expected the males would take a bit of time to bother to wake themselves up and present themselves to the world. After perhaps an hour, Ricardo Paredes reported through our walkie talkies that he’d found a jumping spider with blue legs. I wasted no time in traversing the 100 m or so to Ricardo. In the vial he handed me, there it was, the mythical creature.

Here it is:

Mexigonus “blue legs”, male

This is what he looks like from above.

Mexigonus “blue legs”, male

Here is Ricardo at the site where he found the male hopping through small plants — right along the highway!

Ricardo Paredes León, where he found the blue-legged Mexigonus

And I have to put in another, gratuitous, picture of his blue legs. Note that both the first and second pairs of legs have blue femora.

Mexigonus “blue legs”, male

We didn’t find another adult male, but we did find some juveniles, including a young male (with one moult to go), which we will try to raise.

Magic still exists.


Shivering for diamonds

There was good news and bad news. The good news: we had found something new and special at Humo Chico, the green ghost Mexigonus jumping spiders. The bad news: we had not found any of our target, the delicate “diamond” jumping spiders. Disappointed, we went to the restaurant along the highway there, thinking to do a quick look before eating lunch. I’d found the diamond Mexigonus in 1983 near where the restaurant now stands, but there had been no restaurant then, and the area in the intervening years had been considerably disturbed by human presence (that was the reason we started instead in the undisturbed habitat along the road to the microwave tower).

As I went to try one last time, I was dripping wet and very chilled, for I’d not brought a jacket. When packing for a trip to Mexico, I had stupidly not imagined the chill of a rainy day at 3000 metres elevation. Just beside the buildings of the restaurant complex, I started beating the moss- and lichen-covered bushes. First beat, two specimens of diamond fell on my sheet. What relief, what satisfaction. They were still incredibly common at that particular spot, despite the degradation of their habitat. We got lots of specimens, including both forms of male I’d seen in 1983. Here is a male with just the first pair of legs black:

Mexigonus “diamond one dark”, male

And here is a male with the first two pairs of legs black:

Mexigonus “diamond two dark”, male

Now we can figure out whether they are Mexigonus, and whether the two forms of males represent different species. (I suspect so.)

In the end it was a very satisfying day at Humo Chico, finding our target diamonds and also new things like the green ghost. Shivering, the first thing I ordered at the restaurant was a hot chocolate.

Green ghosts

We chose as an important site to visit on this jumping spider expedition the summit of highway 175 as it goes north from Oaxaca City. There, at about 3000 metres elevation in a place called “Humo Chico”, is a foggy, damp elfin forest. In 1983 on my first trip to Mexico, I caught some elegant little jumping spiders there. Uriel named them “diamond” after the shapes of their markings. We can see that they are generally related to Mexigonus, but it’s not clear to us that they are actually Mexigonus, as they are more delicate-bodied than the other Mexigonus species we know. If they are Mexigonus, they would show the genus can evolve to such a body form, and so they are important for Uriel’s project. Their other point of interest is that two colours of males were found in 1983: one with the first two pairs of legs black, the other with just one pair of legs black. With fresh specimens, we could get new data to decide if they were Mexigonus, and whether the two forms represented different species.

We drove up on Monday from Ixtlán to this high elevation site, but it was misty, raining. We went first to the microwave station at the top, and found very little. All of us were discouraged. We decided to walk down to the main highway. I’m accustomed to jumping spider species staying hidden in their retreats, and so I expected that my anticipation in seeing these delicate spiders would be unrewarded.

And then a surprise occurred. In the drizzle, a jumping spider dropped on my beating sheet that I didn’t recognize at all. Pale and with long legs, it looked ghostly. When I picked it up in the vial I saw that it was a male with a big white moustache, and little black tips to the first legs. Beneath its white hairs the legs were a soft green colour. No jumping spider like this very distinctive species has ever been described. Here is the beautiful male staring boldly at my camera:

Mexigonus “green ghost”, male

Here are a male and female from above:

Mexigonus “green ghost”, male and female

We ended up finding 9 males and a few females of the green ghost Mexigonus. Even though I enjoy finding new species of any sort, whether brown and dull or spectacular, I have to admit that strange and colourful species excite me the most. Finding green ghost was a special moment.

But we didn’t find any “diamond” on our walk down to the highway. I was prepared to give up.

Purple tomato

In my last post I described our success in finding 5 new species of Mexigonus jumping spiders in the oak-pine forest above Lachatao, but I left unexplained one of the species: purple tomato.

That great prize of the day was found by Uriel. Beating some small bushes and branches of fallen pine trees, he found some female Mexigonus that looked really interesting. We decided that it was worth trying to set the whole team looking for a male. The news soon spread: Uriel found a male, and he had figured out the species’ habitat: on exposed or dead branches of bushes or fallen trees, less than a metre from the ground, with just the right amount of sun.

The male is a spectacular creature with black and white fringes on the legs and glistening palpi. We eventually found three males and a few females. Here are photographs of the male

Mexigonus “purple tomato”, male

and of the female

Mexigonus “purple tomato”, female

The male’s biggest claim to fame, though, is the purple sheen on his jaws (chelicerae). He guards the sheen modestly as he walks around, covering it with his palpi. It’s been therefore difficult to photograph. We managed to get a male to briefly do courtship, and of course then he spread his palps to show his purple jaws to the female, modesty abandoned. Here is a screen shot from the video of courtship. You can see the shine of purple just below his eyes.

Mexigonus “purple tomato”, courtship pose

We call this species “purple tomato” because his body form suggests he is related to the bright red species I showed in my first blog post about the expedition. That species was the first one we knew of its group, and so we have started referring to all of the species of the group as “tomatoes”, whether or not they are red. The Lachatao one is just the third member of the group we know, and its jaws compel us to name it “the purple tomato”.

The Lachatao day was a spectacular way to start an expedition.

Preconceptions dashed by sad faces, black pepper, and purple tomatoes

For our first full day of collecting, Arturo Casasola guided us south of Ixtlán, to the community of Lachatao. The winding mountain road brought us to a pine-oak forest that looks a lot like Canada — until you see the bromeliads decorating the trees. It wasn’t quite wet enough to be a cloud forest, but it had some of the elements — not only the bromeliads, but also many other epiphytes (plants growing on other plants) on the branches of the oaks, especially lichens and mosses.

I brought to this collecting expedition a particular concept of where Mexigonus jumping spiders live: mostly on the litter of dry fallen leaves beneath trees. I had formed this idea from previous collecting of other jumping spiders. As I’d collect Habronattus, one of my favourite groups, on such leaf litter, I’d often find a few Mexigonus along the way.

Given this preconception, when we got to the Lachatao forest, I started looking on the leaf litter, and promptly found a little humble brown and tan Mexigonus species quite common there. Good! I decided to try something bold, to look on leaf litter not on the ground, but accumulated in the crooks of branches of the trees. I found a strange cryptically-coloured Mexigonus and was motivated to keep looking above ground. In the end, the team found this cryptic Mexigonus to be common on the epiphyte-covered branches of the oaks — not the habitat of my preconceptions.

We call this species “triste” (sad) for the melancholy expression on their little faces. Here is a male.

Mexigonus “triste”, male.

It turned out that that wasn’t the only Mexigonus living above ground in the forest. We found a small peppery black species by beating dead branches of trees in shadow. (Beating is a technique we use a lot — we hold a kite-like sheet under a bush or tree and shake or hit it with a stick. For more details see here:

In the end we found two species of Mexigonus on the ground, as I’d expected, but three species beating bushes and trees (sad face, black pepper, and a third that I’ll describe next post: purple tomato). All 5 of the species are most likely new to science. This is a happy way to dash one’s preconceptions.

On the road to Oaxaca

Here in Ixtlán de Juárez we took the day off from collecting to catch up with our processing of specimens. We collect the spiders live. When we return from the field, we sort them to species, choose ones to photograph, and preserve the rest, freeing up their vials for the next day. The photographs take a while, and when you add it to the basic note-taking and other duties (we hope to do videos!), we usually don’t quite get done the day’s tasks. Today I had a big pile of spiders that took most of the day to photograph.

So, a belated #Mexigonus2017 report on our trip down from Mexico City. The drive was smooth on the big toll highways, and of course we chose to make a few stops to look quickly for spiders. The highlight of the day for me was to find Habronattus nahuatlanus (at least, that’s what I think it is) at Santa María Tinú and to learn its habitat — in or under grass clumps, just like the recently described H. luminosus from Arizona. Here is the male, and female. The female wasn’t known before, so it’s good to see what it looks like.

Habronattus nahuatlanus, male (top row) and female (bottom row)

We’ve had many successes in subsequent days, and I’ll report on purple tomatoes, green ghosts, and blue-legged magic as soon as I can, perhaps not in chronological order.

By the way, for English speakers who don’t know Spanish, “Oaxaca” is pronounced (more or less) as the English “Wahaca”.

Expedition to Oaxaca and Chiapas

It’s been too long since I’ve been on a major field expedition, more than 3 years. Today I fly to Mexico to begin three weeks in the mountains of Oaxaca and Chiapas with salticidologists (jumping spider experts!) Uriel Garcilazo and Łukasz Trębicki and others interested in arthropods: Ricardo Paredes, José Arturo Casasola, Jorge León, and Gerardo Contreras. Uriel, Łukasz and I will be looking for new species of jumping spiders, with special focus on the genus Mexigonus. There are only a few species of Mexigonus described, but we already know that many more undescribed ones are hiding in the mountains of Mexico.

There are many poorly studied groups of spiders, so why did we choose to focus on Mexigonus? One reason is that it is an evolutionary radiation of the Mexican highlands, its species having diversified among the mountain ranges that fragment the landscape into isolated patches of habitat. Studying the diversity of Mexigonus species and their evolutionary relationships could help us understand the biological history of this region. Another attraction of Mexigonus is the red or orange courtship ornamentation that males of some species have — attractive to the females perhaps, but to us attractive because red ornamentation is not common in salticid spiders. There’s a good chance that most salticids can’t distinguish red (colour blind, in a sense), and so when we find a salticid that can, it could tell us something about the evolution of colour vision.

A species of Mexigonus new to science, from Oaxaca.

Our expedition has been supported generously by Tila Pérez, Griselda Monteil, and Ricardo Paredes of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City. We’ll drive first to Oaxaca, where we’ll spend about 10 days collecting, based at Universidad de la Sierra Juárez (UNSIJ) with José Arturo. After that we’ll spend about 10 days in Chiapas, where Jorge León (EcoSur) has been guiding our plans. At the end of the trip we’ll attend the meetings of the American Arachnological Society in Juriquilla being organized by Fernando Alvarez.


Quest for a tidal spider

In my last blog post I described my somewhat obsessive quest to find the mysterious green-faced Habronattus of southern Arizona. It’s not my only such quest. Another that comes to mind was spent mostly waiting — for the chance to return Sonora to look for the strange tidal spider of the Sea of Cortez.

On the northernmost shore of México’s Sea of Cortez is a little town called Puerto Peñasco. The land there is a harsh, harsh desert, with sparse vegetation barely hanging on. The sea, though, is beautiful, and rich with life. Where they meet, the land blooms. The fluctuation of the tides has eroded inlets that are called “negative estuaries”, mud flats with river-like channels where the tides drain. These mud flats are covered with plants like Salicornia that are tolerant of salt water.

In 2003 I visited one of these negative estuaries, and found a male Habronattus jumping spider that I thought was immature, because it lacked the usual fancy colourful ornaments typical for adult male Habronattus. But a closer look showed it to be adult, a rather peculiar one, unlike anything I’d seen. When I got it back to the lab, I was confused by its features. Some of its traits suggested that it belonged to one group of species; others suggested it belonged to another group. Was it a hybrid? Did it occupy a special place on the evolutionary tree?

I called it “the Peñasco beast”. My curiosity was strong, but I didn’t get a chance to get back to look for more until 10 years later. Our little 2013 expedition, consisting of Heather Proctor, Geneviève Leduc-Robert, Sam Evans and me, arrived to Puerto Peñasco after the drive from Tucson. We were staying and working at CEDO (Centro Intercultural Estudios Desiertos y Oceanos), a scientific and educational centre that plays many roles in raising knowledge and awareness about the amazing ecosystems there. The estuary was close by, so every day we went to look for the Peñasco beast.

What we found, instead, was a different species of Habronattus that was quite striking: a little yellow-orange “monkey” with green legs and a stunning red face, hopping from plant to plant. It was common, and yet it was another new species, never before collected. Exciting, but where was the Peñasco beast? We found but a single baby, and nothing more.

The morning came when we were to pack up and leave. I was pretty disappointed. My colleagues offered to pack up, and urged me to go out one last time to look. So, I went out with our local guide Abraham Meza López to a new spot, a bit of a drive away. The habitat at the other estuary was a bit different. I found a female! And another! And a male! I was beside myself with joy, but at the same time, anxious. We were already late returning to CEDO, and I still wanted to look for more. I knew that the crew would be worried as to why we were late, and might be imagining bad things happening to us in the unfamiliar estuary. But how to tell them not to worry? We were in the middle of this desolate estuary, probably a few kilometers from the nearest human. I knew that none of my colleagues would have their Canadian or American cell phones turned on. But, I knew that they had computers, and internet access at CEDO, and they were probably bored (but anxious) waiting for me. So, I turned my cell phone on — signal! — and sent a tweet that we’d found the Peñasco beast. When I got back I was greeted with congratulatory hugs, rather than cries of relief, and so I knew they’d seen the tweet. And we had the Peñasco beast again!

Habronattus aestus and its habitat in the negative estuaries of Sonora

Habronattus aestus and its habitat in the negative estuaries of Sonora

The specimens we got in 2013 helped me to prepare the publication describing it as a new species, Habronattus aestus. The specimens were also used in a genetic analysis that found it to be a cousin of some species found around my haunts here in Vancouver (Habronattus americanus and Habronattus ophrys). Even when you travel far away, you find things with genetic ties to home.

Real life cryptozoology: the green-faced Habronattus

We’ve all heard of the Yeti, the Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and other such presumably-fictitious creatures that we dream (or fear) we will find someday. Biologists who study biodiversity have our own versions of these, though they aren’t fictitious — just very hard to find. We go into the woods, deserts or oceans, hoping to some day find one.

My “Yeti” was a jumping spider: the green-faced Habronattus of southern Arizona. I have been studying Habronattus for many years, and thought I knew the various species well. Then, I came across a specimen in the American Museum of Natural History that had been collected in the Chiricahua Mountains by Barbara and Vince Roth in 1977. It was unlike any I’d seen before, a male with a metallic green face.

After I moved to Arizona in 1990, I *so* much wanted to find the green-faced Habronattus, and learn more about the species. I found that there was lodging at the site where Barbara and Vince had found it, the Sunglow Ranch. I convinced my family to have a vacation there, and while they were relaxing, I stole off to look for the beast. No luck. Over the years we tried 3 or 4 such vacations at Sunglow, none with spider success. I collected all over southern Arizona over the 13 years I lived there, and never found it. I’m not sure you’d call it an obsession, but my students and friends heard about it. The tiny Yeti remained hidden. I was baffled. Normally, if a Habronattus lives in an area, I’ll find it. I’d been doing this for decades.

In 2012, nine years after I moved back to Canada, I got a query from Thomas Shahan, asking me to identify a Habronattus male found by Maddie Girard on an expedition by the Damian Elias lab. She’d found it in an area I’d collected frequently, Mt. Hopkins Road in the Santa Rita Mountains, an hour’s drive from where I’d lived for 13 years. Thomas’s photo showed a completely unfamiliar male with a blue spot on the face, surrounded by red. I had a momentary thought “Could this be the green-faced Habronattus?” — but no, its face wasn’t green. Eventually, the specimen was sent to me, and I saw that when preserved in alcohol — as the Roths’ specimen had been — the blue spot turns green. It was the green-faced beast, found at last.

We went to Arizona in 2013, and, having the latitude and longitude from Maddie, we were able to go to the exact spot she found hers. Within a couple of hours we found more, and also discovered why it had evaded me for years. The spiders live hidden in clumps of grass. Normally, one finds Habronattus simply by looking on open ground, but this species appears to spend most of its time deep inside or under the clumps. Once we understood the habitat, we discovered it at several sites. The green-faced beast was mysterious no longer.

Habronattus luminosus female, and the grass clumps in which it lives.

Habronattus luminosus female, and the grass clumps in which it lives.

And now it has a name. Last week, in the paper that described Habronattus roberti and Pellenes canadensis of my previous blog posts, I formally named the green-faced beast as Habronattus luminosus — a nod to its first known locality (Sunglow), and to its pale colour. The tiny Yeti found, studied, and catalogued. And now, available for more detailed study. In fact, the specimen I used as the reference specimen for the species (the “type specimen”) was collected by Nathan Morehouse and Daniel Zurek for studies on spider vision.

By the way, I admit it, my pride was momentarily hurt that I wasn’t the one to have rediscovered the green-faced Habronattus. But of course, what matters is that it was found. And, how wonderful it is that there are young people with sharp eyes, like Maddie, to continue to uncover the biodiversity that remains to be found.

A spider species new to science, named to honour Canada’s 150th

Much of my recent field work has been in dark tropical rainforests — literally dark, as the tall trees shade thoroughly, but also figuratively dark, obscure, as yet little known to us. There, it is not surprising to find species new to science, especially among small creatures that most people ignore — like spiders.

Our habitats here in Canada are rich in diversity, but not nearly as rich as the tropics. We’ve been studying Canadian creatures for a couple of hundred years. This might lead you to think that we’ve found almost everything there is to be found in Canada. In fact, for very small creatures, like microbes, mites, fungi, and others, there are thousands of species yet to be discovered in Canada. For slightly larger creatures, like jumping spiders, new ones don’t show up every day, but they are out there.

In a paper published just last week I described a new species of jumping spider from Canada, a black and white striped species in the genus Pellenes. One of the perks of discovering and describing a species is that you get to choose the name. In honour of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, I named the new species Pellenes canadensis.

A male (left) and a female (right) of Pellenes canadensis, and the ground on which they were found.

A male (left) and a female (right) of Pellenes canadensis, and the ground on which they were found, Mt. Baldy, British Columbia.

Pellenes canadensis, so far, is known from just three localities, two in southern British Columbia (one, Mt. Baldy, east of Oliver; the other, near Midway) and one in northwestern Montana. It lives on open ground at mid to high elevations. It was first collected 40 years ago at the Montana locality by my brother David, parents Louise and Robert, and myself. We were on a family vacation, and as was our custom, we included beetles and spiders among the scenery of interest. David and I found it again five years later in southern BC, and then in 2013, Heather Proctor and I found it at Mt. Baldy.

The name “Pellenes canadensis” is anchored to the Mt. Baldy locality, because I designated one of the specimens from there as the “type specimen”. That’s the specimen that serves as the reference point for the name. Whatever biological species we place that specimen into, the name follows it.

I knew in 1977 that the species was new to science, but it’s taken me 40 years to describe it formally. Biodiversity is so big, there’s so much to discover, there are so few of us doing it, and we get relatively little reward for doing it, that we have a big backlog of new species awaiting our attention. I know of at least four other jumping spider species in Canada that are new to science and still waiting to be described. Today, though, I am so pleased to have finally sent a postcard from a 1977 vacation, and to have had the chance to honour, simultaneously, Canada and this little jumping spider.