Spiders · Urban Ecology · Biodiversity

The scary world of spider taxonomy

I have to admit, there is one aspect of this research that really scared me… it wasn’t the collecting of spiders that worried me (I love the little guys and I’m yet to find one who is willing to bite me), it was the classification of them!

There are more than 40,000 species of spiders in the world, and thousands of those are in Australia. So how am I supposed to be able to work out which ones are which? It seemed like an impossible task, and although I’ve been doing spider surveys for two years now, this week is the first time I’ve tried to properly work out what any of them are.

I have to work out which spiders I’ve collected to allow me to quantify biodiversity in different areas. So the first step is a really good microscope. This is my work station (I spend more time here than in bed at the moment…).

This allows me to get a good look at the spiders, which is important because some of them are really tiny, and sometimes to tell two species apart you have to look at minute details like leg hairs and number of “teeth” on their fangs (try not to think about that too much if you tend towards arachnophobia).

Now the hard part. As I mentioned above, to tell species apart I select from a range of characteristics in a really great program called Spiders Of Australia. These characteristics range from arrangement of eyes, length and shape of mouth parts, body shape, number of hairs on the 2nd segment of the 4th leg… it gets pretty complicated.

There are also a few websites which I find really useful:
http://ednieuw.home.xs4all.nl/australian/Spidaus.html
http://www.findaspider.org.au/
http://www.arachne.org.au/
http://www.flickr.com/groups/australianspiders/

In the end, after a few tries with the program, and having to a learn a whole lot of spider anatomy, it didn’t take too long to get the hang of, and “discovering” new species every few hours is very exciting.

So once I’ve identified the spider down to Family, Genus and morphospecies, it gets a little label and gets stored in Ethanol. One down, many thousands to go….

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