Mantid Mating!

We’ve just had the second (apparently) successful pairing in our lab preying mantis population and this time we had a camera handy!  The female is Victory and the male is Suicide.  Victory caught and ate three locust during the course of the copulation but thankfully all her jumping around didn’t seem to deter Suicide.

Spiders and other peoples’ photos

Quite some time ago I set out to learn how to keep and breed jumping spiders. Well, despite the complete romantic incompetence displayed by the late Baby, my two female Plexippus petersi each produced several clutches of eggs and I am now swimming in spiderlings. I recently gave some of them away to a fellow PhD student Tom Houslay who is (thankfully) a far better photographer than I am. To see photos of the babies, as well as many other awesome spiders, check out his Flickr page here.


At long last all but one of our mantids have reached adulthood.  A couple came through their final moult a little odd (we think the humidity was a bit low) but all are eating well and will soon be ready to mate.  The sex ratio is a bit male-biased, but we have three females so with a bit of luck that will be enough to get our colony going (it also means it’s not so much of a problem if a few males get eaten along the way). Here are some lovely photos courtesy of Paris Veltsos.

Yet more spiders

The last few weekends I’ve been helping out at an outreach event at the Bell Pettigrew Museum. The event, Gardenlife: biodiversity in urban gardens, is part of the British Ecological Society’s Centenary Festival of Ecology and is designed to get children interested in the awesome little creatures you can find in your garden. It means I get paid to run around with sweep nets and pooters catching insects and spiders to bring back to the museum for identification.

One of the coolest finds so far has been a rather unfortunate cucumber spider.


As you can see the little guy has been parasitised by a wasp (probably a Pimplinae of some sort but don’t quote me on that). The spider is still very much alive as the larva will eat around its vital organs in order to avoid killing it for as long as possible. My plan is to keep the spider until the wasp pupates as I’ll have a better chance of identifying it then.

Overall it’s been an unlucky week for spiders as my male Plexippus petersi Baby died two days ago. While sad, this has given me an opportunity to get some shots of him under the microscope (a previously impossible task).  One of his close-ups is below and I’ve added the rest to the gallery.


Lab pet update

Our Ampulex wasps arrived yesterday!  They are so pretty!







Rapacious has reached adulthood!  Hopefully the other mantids will soon do the same and we can aim to start breeding them in August.


We now have a controlled temperature room.  The plan is to move the mantids plus some of our other lab pets into there to free up incubator and bench space.

Our current set-up in the incubator
Our current set-up in the incubator
The new CT room
The new CT room

Jumping spiders

My obsession with jumping spiders (or Salticidae as they are properly known) started during my undergraduate honours project when I spent several months carefully photographing (sadly deceased) specimens from twenty nine species in order to study their body shapes. (For some idea of the amazing variation in body shapes amongst the  Salticidae check out this video by Dr. Wayne Maddison, and then check out everything else he’s ever done, it’s totally worth it.) As most jumping spiders are small (the largest just push 2cm in length) it’s not until you get them under a microscope you realise quite how beautiful they are.  Many of the species in my study were covered in flecks of gold and silver.  They also have giant forward-facing eyes which have made them hugely popular with wildlife photographers (as a quick Google image search will reveal).

One of the photos from my undergrad project.  This particular spider is Heliophanus patagiatus
One of the photos from my undergrad project. This particular spider is Heliophanus patagiatus

My enthusiasm for jumping spiders only grew as I became more interested in sexual behaviour.  As the now-famous video of peacock spiders shows, male jumping spiders often perform complex courtship displays.  One of my long-term career goals is to study sexual conflict in these spiders and how that may have shaped these elaborate behaviours; I recently decided that a good first step on my way to this would be to actually keep and breed one of the commercially available species.  Thus two weeks ago I became the proud owner of a breeding trio of Plexippus petersi courtesy of Exopet (who also supplied some of our mantids).  I named them after cultivars of kiwi fruit (don’t ask why) so the girls are rather appropriately named Fuzzy and Golden and the male is Baby.  All three are happily settled in and feeding well of the endless supply of drosophila from the genetics labs.  I’ve even see Baby displaying to the females (I’m hoping to get a decent video up next week).

In the meantime here are some of the best photos of Baby I’ve managed to get.

Check out those pedipalps
Check out those pedipalps

spiders 014 spiders 009

Look at his little face
Look at his little face

spiders 007

Conference roundup

It’s been a busy couple of months; I’ve gone from never having spoken at a conference to having talked at three.  Admittedly I was also the organiser of one, but still I that still leaves two ‘real’ conferences.

Our beautiful poster (not designed by me!)
Our beautiful poster (not designed by me!)

Conference number one was the St Andrews School of Biology Postgraduate conference.  As the president of the Postgraduate Bio-Network I was in charge of organising this one.  I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t exactly been the most active president in the BioNet’s history (most of the actual running of the network was done by my co-president, now sadly banished to the wilds of Glasgow) so I was determined to prove my worth and actually do a good job on this one. Despite some panic early on in the organisation, when I was having trouble securing a venue, the whole thing went off remarkably smoothly.  Indeed one of the major complaints was a distressing lack of biscuits during the coffee breaks, a problem that was quickly fixed by a trip to Tesco.  Attendance was somewhat sporadic, as is always the case when you demand a bunch of stressed-out PhD students leave their labs for two days to learn about each-other’s work, but the wine reception and ceilidh were both well-attended.  I’m proud to report that my talk was voted 3rd best (alas there were only prizes for 1st and 2nd place but at least that way I avoided any accusations of fixing!).  1st prize went to an excellent talk on the effect of temperature on jellyfish, and second to a talk of the effects of oxytocin in seals.

A good time was had by all...
A good time was had by all…

The poster prizes were taken by a pair of very originally designed posters on Guppy behaviour, one of which resembled a comic strip. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found actually talking one of the least stressful parts of the conference (with the exception of the ceilidh).

The second conference took place the day after the first (and hence the morning after some considerable drinking and dancing on my part). The Scottish Conference on Animal Behaviour (somewhat unfortunately abbreviated to SCAB) is a friendly little conference held this year in Glasgow.  After an early start to drive cross-country in the snow, we were relieved to find plentiful coffee and no shortage of biscuits upon arrival.  The breaks and poster session where held in the Zoology Museum in Glasgow University, an awesome venue with a particularly original entomology section.  The quality of all the talks and posters was very high, the only slight distraction being the lack of heat in the lecture theatre.  The range of the talks was also excellent, everything from insect behaviour to fish development. My favourite talk was on sexual swellings in primates and best talk was awarded to a presentation on age-dependent behaviour in the wandering albatross.  I was in the final session and so nervous I did my 15 minute talk in less than 10.  Despite this I apparently made sense and did at least get our session back on time as the talk before mine had overrun.  Sadly any attempts at socialising were cut short as there was only time for one glass of wine before we were back in the car to get home before dark.

The final conference of the spring was the ASAB Easter meeting.  This year it was held in sunny Lincoln and, surprisingly, it was actually quite sunny.  The conference started with a workshop on Sensory Ecology.  While a lot of the talks were not really relevant to my work (good luck getting a seed bug to use a touch screen) it was nevertheless engaging. In particular the talk on how animals perceive and use signals got me thinking more about how the aposematic nature of my bugs might influence their communication.  While going to a conference with people from your own department can sometimes end with you talking only to each other, this time it worked in my favour. My companions knew some of the other attendees from masters courses and previous conferences and so were able to introduce me to several lovely new people.  This is useful for me as if left to my own devices I tend to lurk in corners consumed by social anxiety, hardly an effective networking strategy.  I also had the chance to chat to a student who will be joining our lab come September and hopefully helped impress upon her the extent to which alcohol plays a role in the design of new experiments.

I could try and describe all the good student talks (of which there were many) but that may push this post over the 1000 word mark and ensure no-one ever reads it.  Suffice to say the overall trends of the conference, to my mind at least, were learning (in the form of discrimination tasks) and personality (thankfully based on repeatable behaviours and not pet owner questionnaires).  The winning talk was on the effects of induced sickness on bee learning, a study which while interesting did make me feel for the poor queasy little bees.  Personally, the fact that has most stuck with me from the whole conference is that tortoises prefer mango jelly to apple jelly.  Sadly their thoughts on strawberry jelly remain unknown to science.

The highlight of the whole thing was undoubtedly the dinner.  It was held the The Deep, an aquarium in Hull.  This did necessitate an hour long coach trip that felt remarkably like a school trip but it was well worth it. Upon arrival we were provided with small cones of fish and chips and let loose in the now-empty aquarium.  Asking a biologist to pick their favourite animals is near impossible, but a special mention has to go to the jellyfish and the garden eels (see below).

So that concludes my conference round-up.  I will now be forced to actually concentrate on my own work, at least until ESEB and ENTO 2013 later in the summer.

A garden eel courtesy of wiki commons
A garden eel courtesy of wiki commons
I took this one myself
I took this one myself


Following our work on the sexual cannibalism literature last year we are now branching out into actually studying a sexually cannibalistic animal.  In this case preying mantids!  As always when embarking on the study of an exiting new species, our first step was to work out how to keep them in the lab.  Thankfully preying mantids are popular pets and husbandry information is easily available for many species.  We’ve decide upon Sphodromantis viridis or the African Giant Mantid as our study species (a decision that may or may not come back to haunt us as we grapple with their large size and long life-span).  One benefit of this species is it is commonly advertised as a ‘beginner species’ and that I have actually kept them in the past.

So back in February I tracked down my old supplier and bought three 3-4th instar nymphs just to check that my planned set-up would work.  The three were a big hit and quickly took to their new homes (converted innocent veg pots) and new diet (spare Nasonia and Drosophila).  We named them Voracious, Rapacious and Suicide; names that may seem familiar to those of you who read our last paper!

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In the months since they arrived all three have shed and grown considerably.  They are now joined by 5 other nymphs, from a variety of sources, who should (with a bit of luck and a decent sex ratio) form the basis of our breeding colony.  So far we’ve had only on death and I suspect that was from the stress of being posted during the glorious snow of Scottish “spring”.  Hopefully all our mantids will continue to grow so I can spam this site with photos of them instead of actually writing blog posts.

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