In-Spidering Research: Dr Leanda Mason and the world-famous Trapdoor Spider
Last year a research article about a trapdoor spider published in Pacific Conservation Biology hit a chord with media outlets and their readers all around the world. The paper’s Altmetric score soared, the spider, dubbed ‘Number 16’, even got her own Wikipedia entry (external link), and co-authors Dr Leanda Denise Mason and Associate Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson were the recipients of Curtin University “Research and Engagement Awards”.
The research was part of a long-term population study lead by the late Adjunct Professor Barbara York Main, who sadly passed away last month. Barbara was the first female student to receive a PhD in the Zoology Department of the University of Western Australia in 1956, the subject of a David Attenborough-narrated documentary in 1981 and recipient of an Order of Australia Medal for her contributions to Zoology in 2011, among many other accolades – clearly a legend in her field. We asked the paper’s lead author, and Barbara’s student, friend and colleague Dr Leanda about how she came to work with Barbara, as well as the impact of the media attention and the future of the trapdoor spider site.
Your paper about Number 16 was picked up by media all over the world. How did you feel seeing all that news coverage? What do you think it was that captivated people?
My excitement was truly ‘palp-able’. Finally: Barbara and her trapdoor spiders were being unearthed with well-deserved glory! When writing the research note, I knew that the news of a 43 year old spider had the potential to go viral, due to the extremely long age for a spider… not to mention a new world record. However, my experience in news coverage was limited, and the experience not at all what I anticipated.
Most of the coverage was via newspaper, radio and social media articles. Very little, if any news coverage was on the television, which was surprising to me. Trapdoor spiders are very odd little critters, and I would have thought their strange life history – including weird mating habits – may have captivated audiences. Besides kinky mating videos, there is much footage of trapdoor spiders launching themselves onto unsuspecting, but well positioned, prey too – always a crowd-pleaser. Trapdoor burrows are impressive in their camouflage, and opening the neatly silk-lined burrows from seemingly nowhere tends to amaze even the most hardened arachnophobe.
Overall, I think it was the extreme age that captivated people. Those that are more curious in our natural world may have also been impressed by the oddity of the creature itself.
The story spread quickly via social media. How do you think social media can be used by researchers, such as yourself, to get your work out there?
Social media is wonderful to quickly spread information widely, but the accuracy of the information can so easily get distorted. I love it for enhancing accessibility and dissemination to a wider audience, and far beyond the scientific community. However, I did cringe every time I saw a wolf spider burrow labelled as a ‘trapdoor spider’ accompanying the story. Sometimes even with a wolf spider in the burrow. But that is the pedantic nature of my inner scientist manifesting.
I realise that the vast majority of the public are probably not that interested in the spider itself, but the fact that a spider – any spider – could live for so long. And, that most after learning the age, will not pursue the thought any further…unless of course they are stuck as one of my audience members. In such cases I use the age as a hook to draw them in before bombarding them with other cool trapdoor spider facts. This is effective with the scientific community too, as we are all just of excitable nerds really, if otherwise narrowed to our respective fields of research. Scientific and non-scientific audiences often react in the same way – trapdoor spiders are so unknown to most, but so beautifully weird and unique that all people find them fascinating. So really, I feel like the nature of trapdoor spider trivia lends itself well to people in general. Unfortunately, arachnophobes are everywhere and they are slightly more difficult to engage with, for obvious reasons!
Barbara York Main first found Number 16 and initiated the study. How did you become involved?
Barbara started the study in 1974. In 2008, I was in my second year of undergraduate study, and was introduced to her by another professor after having a whinge about the lack of leaf litter creepy crawly content in my units. The sheer delight at seeing the live trapdoor spider she had living in a pot-planter in her office was enough to assure her of my interest perhaps. She immediately plied me with research papers and I was hooked from then on. We grew close. Though, I am not sure I gave her much choice really, since I clung to her like a mite on her trapdoor spider. It is a little embarrassing in hindsight how much I so transparently admired her – she was just as fascinating to me as her trapdoor spiders.
I thought Barbara very lady-like, private and proper. Also, stoic and indefatigable. Perhaps as a result of being one of the first women in academia. Yet, she always maintained a very good sense of humour. Humour likely assisted when mentoring me, and her patience led to taking me on as an honours student and then as a PhD student.
There was a 60 year age difference between us, and it was sometimes difficult to bridge that gap, but we found common ground in humour and our love of trapdoor spiders. I found out recently (at her wake) that she had shared the same funny story to her family, but in reverse to the one I often tell. Essentially I did not know what a doily was, misunderstanding it to be some technical term especially used to describe the frilly bits of silk around some trapdoor spider burrow entrances. It is nice to know that she found my shame at realizing my mistake as amusing as I did!
Working with Barbara was an honour and a privilege, as she was an exceptionally dedicated scientist, and an inspiration to others (and to women in particular) everywhere. Often I say I was ‘in-spidered’ by her. However, I will always remember her for her kindness and consideration during a very difficult time in my personal life that occurred during my honours year. I loved working with her, but knowing her as the exceptional person she was, was an even greater honour and privilege.
You’ve taken over looking after Barbara’s trapdoor spider site. What next for Number 16’s family and your research?
I will continue to monitor Barbara’s long-term study site and publish the last few decades of her data at the site on her behalf. However, in terms of my own research, I am not so sure. Securing a position in academia is increasingly difficult with limited funding opportunities, and proportionately more graduates in competition. Despite the attention Number 16’s age received (and other stories such as the insect apocalypse), invertebrate ecology/conservation is not, and probably never will be, considered a priority funding area. So trapdoor spider research is likely something I will be forced to do in my spare time, and outside of whatever profession grants me a living wage. Barbara was never paid an income, despite the vast amount of work she did for her university, making it even more impressive as to what she achieved in her research.
I hope to survey the entire reserve in which Number 16’s family reside. It is a large reserve, and I would be interested to know if Barbara’s long term study site is an anomaly in terms of a very high population density. There may be opportunities in the future to learn more about their population genetics, microhabitat preferences and response, in conjunction with Barbara’s data.
Dr Leanda’s research article, ‘The longest-lived spider: mygalomorphs dig deep, and persevere‘, co-authored with Grant Wardell-Johnson and Barbara York Main, was published in Pacific Conservation Biology last year.