Category Archives: Spiders

The road to degradation: is “naming all the species” achievable or even desirable?


In 2013 Mark Costello, Robert May and Nigel Stork published a review paper in the journal Science called “Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct?”  It’s a paper that I discuss with my students in their final year Biodiversity and Conservation module, and it always generates a lot of interest, and it’s has been well cited since it first appeared (143 citations* to date according to Web of Science).  There was an interesting response by Mora et al., with a riposte by Costello et al., but overall the original paper has been rather influential in framing some discussions about taxonomic effort and description of species, and the idea that we can “name everything” with additional resources.  At the end of the review Costello and colleagues answered their own question by stating: “We believe that with modestly increased effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction” [my emphasis].

Is their optimism justified?  Can “most species be discovered”?  And what are the implications for how we go about “discovering” these species that are unknown to science?

In my professional life I’ve been fortunate enough to carry out field work with some great colleagues in some wonderful parts of the world, including tropical rainforest and savannah in Guyana and Gabon, mountain scrub in the High Andes of Peru, seasonal dry forest in Australia, montane grasslands in South Africa, Namibian desert, and Brazilian cerrado and Atlantic rainforest.  All of these were sites where non-biologists would rarely venture: off the beaten track and (usually**) away from the typical tourist haunts.  It would be tempting to describe these places as “remote” but really they were not, because they all shared something in common: accessibility.  We were able to reach these sites by traveling along roads, of variable quality, usually in four-wheel drive vehicles.  The roads were often not in good condition, and frequently not metaled, but they were roads nonetheless.

It’s sometimes said that if one were to map the geographical coordinates of plant specimens stored in herbariums such as the one at Kew, you would end up with a road map of the world.  That’s because collecting biological specimens, or carrying out field work, requires us to be able to gain access to an area.  And accessibility usually means roads, unless one is working on the coast or along a river or lake, or have lots and lots of funding to allow teams to be helicoptered into an area (which is rare, but makes for exciting television).  Therefore most collecting of biological specimens is done in areas not far from roads.

So, any initiative that intends to “name all the species” in a particular group is going to require access to the remotest parts of the planet, areas that currently have no roads running through them.

There are still areas of the world that we can consider “remote” and “wilderness”, areas that are more than 100km from the nearest road – as a study published at the end of 2016 demonstrated.  But these are often found in the most biologically rich parts of the planet, for example tropical rainforest and mountainous areas, where we wouldn’t necessarily want to put roads to make them accessible to taxonomists (or even ecologists).  That’s because where roads go, people go, and accessibility to an area is usually followed by exploitation and degradation: illegal hunting, logging, mining, poaching of specimens for sale, etc. etc.


Now, don’t get me wrong, taxonomy is absolutely vital to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity.  It also underpins much ecological, bio-molecular and agricultural research and technology.  But the trade off for taxonomists is that they must gather their specimens and data from accessible areas, and that often means roads, and roads mean degradation.

The impetus for this post came from Twitter where a taxonomist highlighted the very good work done by the Virtual Institute of Spider Taxonomy Research (VINT) and described it as an “initiative to discover all spider species of the world in 30 years”.  Interestingly I can’t find that aspiration on the VINT website, but if it exists I’m not sure it’s achievable for spiders or any other diverse group of species, without being able to access parts of the world that are best left un-degraded.  Again, this is particularly true of the tropics where species can have very limited distributions.  A number of years ago an Australian botanist told me about how he was only able to collect some epiphytic Hoya specimens in Papua New Guinea by going into areas of rainforest that had been illegally logged, removing the plants from crowns of the felled trees, with no little risk to his own safety if the loggers had spotted him.  Some of those species might have remained undescribed if the area had not been opened up by a road prior to deforestation.  That would have been a loss for Hoya taxonomy, but surely positive for conservation.

Can “most species be discovered”?  Is this even a desirable thing?  I used to think so, because of the oft-stated view that we can’t conserve what we don’t know.  Now I’m not so sure, for reasons I hope I’ve articulated.  But as always I’d welcome your comments and criticisms.


*Including one in the conference: Annual Forum on Grumpy Scientists: the Ecological Conscience of a Nation:Royal Zoological Society, Sydney, Australia.  I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

**Usually, but not always: I have a few papers where some or all data collection was done in and around back-packers hostels, hotels, and tourist lodges.  Hey, you take your opportunities where you find them in this game!

Spiders: a guide for first-year students!


Yesterday I had a phone call from a colleague in the university’s marketing department.  Apparently there’s been a lot of complaints, and some hysteria on social media, about spiders appearing in the rooms of first year students in our halls of residence.  My colleague asked if I’d write something about spiders, and how they were harmless and nothing to worry about, that they could use to placate the students’ worries.  This is what I wrote and I thought it worth sharing on the blog.


Spiders! Ugly. Unpleasant. Spooky. Dangerous…..even deadly?! Spiders in Britain are all of these things, right?

No! Absolutely not! Spiders are fascinating, sometimes beautiful, and are an ecologically important groups of animals. Although it’s true that large spiders can sometimes give us the jitters, myself included: I don’t like walking into them in the garden! In fact as a kid I had a real phobia of spiders that I got over by handling increasingly bigger ones until eventually I could pick up even the largest spider we have in this country.

Most of the fear of spiders is based on myths and misconceptions, rather than reality. Ignore the DRAMATIC HEADLINES about False Widow Spiders – it’s an uncommon species and it’s extremely rare to encounter one of these, never mind be bitten. They make their webs near rocks where there are deep cracks into which they can hide. So you’re not likely to find them in your room!

Spiders play a really important role in the environment by eating large numbers of flies, including some that bite or carry disease or that might otherwise be much more harmful to humans than spiders. Spiders in turn are a food source for many of our birds, and in the spring some birds also use spider webs to construct their nests. If we had no spiders then we’d lose a lot of the birds that are so familiar in our gardens, such as Blue Tits and Blackbirds.

At this time of the year spiders are more apparent than ever, and the one you are most likely to see is a large, beautifully patterned species know as the European Garden Spider. The big ones are the females; males are much smaller. They sometimes make their way into houses and can construct large webs. But they are harmless and would only bite if held tightly in the hand, and they are much happier outside than in your room. They can’t jump on you and they do not attack!

What to do if you find a spider in your room and you want to get it out but can’t bear to go near? Find a friend who is not so squeamish and ask them to use a glass and a book or piece of cardboard to gently capture the spider and take it outside. Don’t worry, it won’t find its way back! Before you release it, though, try to find the courage to look really closely at this creature: they are attractively speckled and really very pretty!

The other thing you can do is find some conkers from the Horse Chestnut trees on campus and put them on your windowsill. It’s an old folk tradition that spiders don’t like the smell of conkers and there is some evidence that it keeps them out of the house.

I’ll let you into a secret. As Professor of Biodiversity I’ve done ecological field work all over the world, including the rainforests of Africa and the savannahs of South America. Every now and again I come across spiders that are much larger, and potentially more dangerous, than anything we find in Britain. Initially they still give me a shiver; but once I’ve spotted them I can take time to study their colours and forms and beautiful webs, and appreciate just how amazing and important spiders really are.

Have a great year at university and don’t worry about the spiders!