Spider in da House

24 September 2013

Interview with

Adam Hart, University of Gloucestershire, Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

Now is the time of year when spiders invade our homes as they search for mates.

But we don't know a huge amount about why this happens, or which spiders do this; so a group of researchers from the Society of Biology are asking volunteers to snap photos of the spiders they spot to help us to understand how they behave.

Chris Smith was joined by University of Gloucestershire ecologist Adam Hart.

Chris - So, tell us about this project.  What are you trying to do and why?

Adam - Yeah.  Well, last year, the Society of Biology and I setup the flying ant survey which was a big success last summer and it's run again this year.  What we realise is that there's a real enthusiasm for these kind of charismatic but slightly sort of a marmite animals like flying ants.  And we started thinking, well, what else comes into that kind of category?  And this time of year, we noticed on Twitter last year, lots of people were using the hash tag spider survey and it's a very predictable kind of emergence of these, particularly male spiders roaming around, looking for mates.  So, we thought it will be a nice way to capitalise on that enthusiasm and also find something out about it because really, you can't study these sorts of things across the country without having lots and lots of people involved.  So, citizen science is an absolutely brilliant way to try and look at the emergence, to try and look at how it maps to local temperature, weather conditions, and that sort of thing.

Chris - So, what are the questions that you're seeking to answer with the data Tegenaria Spiderthat people at home will be generating for you?

Adam - Well really, in this first sort of stage, it's almost quantifying exactly what's happening every year.  When do spiders start coming out?  How long does it last for?  Is it a pattern that's seen across the country or is it something that's only seen towards the south of the country?  So, it's really at this stage, a kind of look and see, simply because although we know a great deal about how spider venom and the production of silk.  We know lots of very fine detail.  We actually don't know that much about the more general ecology particularly, when it comes to the timing of these sorts of events.

Chris - How will you process all the data because you've got this app, people will use it?  We'll hear how Ginny got on within a second.  But you'll get all this data coming in with coordinates and pictures, has someone got to troll through all that?

Adam - Well, the short answer to that is that I have a PhD student who's helping me out with this.  But actually, it's not quite as onerous as it might seem because we set this up so that the data goes straight into a spreadsheet.  That spreadsheet can then be interrogated more or less automatically, take the coordinates out and start producing detailed maps and detailed sort of progressions of maps, and animations and things.  A lot of it was done for the flying ant survey.  So, we're kind of re-using some of that technology and some of that know-how to process these data as well.  But yes, it does produce quite a lot of data.  What's quite important I think with these sorts of surveys is that we've asked people for some very simple information. Once we've got that, we can start to produce these patterns and maps.

Chris - Just give us the web address if you could, if people would like to find out more how to do the survey please, Adam.

Adam - Two ways to do it.  One is the societyofbiology.org/spider or if you just search for spider survey on Google, you'll get straight to the survey.

Chris - Thanks, Adam.  That was Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire.  Earlier this week, we sent Ginny Smith out on a spider hunt.  She went to Queens College in Cambridge and she met up with Rebecca Nesbit from the Society of Biology to see what they could flush out.

Ginny - Okay, so we're going to have a wander around the older parts of Queen's now and see what we can find.  I can see a pipe in the corner there that has lots of webs on it.  What have we got going on over there?

Rebecca - Absolutely already, I could see there's quite a lot here and it looks these spiders have been allowed to live here for a while which they'll be very happy about.

Ginny - What's that?  I can see what looks like quite a big spider there.

Rebecca - Yes.  Now, this looks like the exuviae.  So, when a spider grows whereas our skeleton can grow gradually, the spider has an exoskeleton and what it needs to do is in order to grow, it has to shed that skin.  This is a skin that it's left behind.

Ginny - Okay, so after a bit more hunting, we finally managed to find one of this big house spiders.  It's pretty creepy.  So, what do we need to do with your app?

Rebecca - So, what we need to do is first, make sure it's a Tegenaria spider and identify whether it's a male or female.  So, if we take a closer look, what you can see is that although spiders have 8 legs, at the front, it looks like they've got mini legs.  These are called pedipalps.  What you can see in the males is they look a bit like they've got a pair of boxing gloves on the end of them.  That's where the sperm is stored.  So, what I can see for this one, it does have those large boxing gloves on the end of its pedipalps, so this one is a male.  So, what I'm going to do is first, I'm going to take a picture of it which does involve getting a bit close I'm afraid.  Ginny, you're sure you don't want to take the picture?

Ginny - No, I'm holding the recording equipment.  It's fine.  Is it okay if you trap it under a glass before you take the picture?

Rebecca - Absolutely and that can often make for quite a clear picture in fact.  So, here we go, taking the picture.

Ginny - Great!  Okay, so you've got a picture of this thing.  Now, what do we do to actually send the data to you?

Rebecca - So, we have an app and it's called Spider in da House.  Once you go to the homepage, you can see, 'enter your record'.  The phone should be able to send in the latitude and the longitude, and asks you 'which room was the spider in?', then we're going to upload a photo.

Ginny - And what happens to all this information?

Rebecca - Well, we are so pleased so far that we've got well over 3,000 records.  What we're particularly going to be looking at is when we're seeing these spiders.  And because we see in particular this time of year, when the males become more nomadic, we know that it's breeding season.  So, by recording them appearing in our houses, we know when the males are out and about on the lookout for a female.  We're going to look at geographical differences around the UK and hopefully, we're going to have quite a few years worth of data.  We may be able to look at weather conditions as well.

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