“No matter how much you look at nature, there’s always more to find. I think of it as a bit of a treasure hunt.”
That’s what Robert Whyte, the man who discovered 37 new spider species this September, told me.
He said if you’ve ever wanted to find a creature the world has never seen before, Aussie spiders are where it’s at.
75% of the thousands of species here haven’t even been discovered yet, which places our country at the top of the bucket lists of international arachnologists and entomologists alike.
Here’s how you can make your mark on the exciting world of taxonomy:
Step 1: Gather your tools
Forget about carting 4L of water and 40+ SPF sunscreen around the outback. According to Robert, if you live within a 30-minute drive of the bush, you don’t need to even leave your own backyard to discover a new type of spider. You just need three things on hand:
1. A Camera
Robert got into arachnology not because he had any special love for spiders, but because he got immense pleasure from photographing nature.
His hottest tip? Turn your camera on to macro mode or invest in a little magnifying lens:
“Don’t think that with your ordinary eyesight you’re actually seeing everything that’s around you. You’re seeing maybe 100th of what’s really there. It’s when you get really up close and you start exploring every leaf and looking under every rock you’ll start seeing what’s actually going on,” he says.
2. A tuning fork
When you find your specimen, simply strike a tuning fork and the vibrations will calm the spider, making it easier to photograph or even capture.
If you do discover something incredible, you’ll need to keep it! Every new species must be submitted to the museum with a sample known as a “holotype”. More on this later.
Step 2: Walk outside, look around
“If you get interested in spiders, you’ll soon come to find something that’s never been described,” Robert says.
“Just go outside, look closely at the natural environment, and take pictures of everything you can find. You’ll see little colourful beetles, bugs that mimic other bugs, disguised things like praying mantis, a butterfly going to make chrysalis that’ll hatch out with babies sooner or later… If you look in native flowers you’ll sometimes catch a spider lurking there waiting for an insect to come in and take the pollen.”
In fact, Australia is so rich in unidentified spiders that people come from all over the world to check them out!
“There are no undescribed spiders there in Germany or Japan. The Northern Hemisphere has lots of scientists and not much unexplored country. Whereas in Austalia we’ve got people living around the coastal fringe, leaving vast areas unexplored. They might have farmed a bit, but by and large, humans haven’t looked under every rock.”
Yep. You heard the man. Discovering a new species is as simple as looking under some backyard rocks.
Step 3: Consult the (Facebook) experts
Once you’ve stumbled upon a curious little beauty, you’ll want to know what it is. The easiest way to identify creatures nowadays is to post your pictures on Facebook groups like:
You’ll find experts in these groups who will gladly identify your species within minutes. Plus: When you’re constantly exposed to spiders in your news feed, you’ll stop fearing them, start learning how to identify them, and soon you’ll catch yourself thinking they’re a little bit cute!
Step 4: Capture your spider
Sadly, when it comes to identifying potentially undiscovered species, pictures will not do.
“You can’t just describe it and not have the specimen because other scientists have to go to the real thing and not just take it on faith that you’re right,” Robert says.
So, lure your new eight-legged mate into your handy dandy Tupperware container with your tuning fork and get him/her to a taxonomist at a univeristy or state museum ASAP. They’ll make sure your spider isn’t “already described” by measuring it, examining all the different body parts and comparing it to photographs of closely related spiders.
They may even consult the World Spider Catalogue: a collection of scientific papers and descriptions dating back to 1712, which chronicles all the accepted species of spiders in the world (47,759 to be exact).
Step 5: Taxonomy time (aka name that shit!)
If your discovery is truly unique, you’ll need to leave your spider in the hands of taxonomists who will do a full report. It’s at this stage you can suggest a name. Oh, and we have some bad news for you: You can’t name your spider after yourself. The International Committee for Zoological Nomenclature won’t allow it. It turns out that naming things is a very serious business (just ask the “Alien Butt Spider“).
“If you start getting things informal or messed up in naming things then you start to lose your grip on the whole science. If you disobey the rules they just say, ‘No that’s not valid’,” Robert explains.
So how do you validate your find?
Well, you’ll need the taxonomist’s descriptive paper published in a “respected scientific journal of good standing”, and they’ll need three recognised scientists that aren’t their mates to referee the paper.
Once that’s taken care of, voila! You’ve successfully discovered, named and documented a brand new species!
Now go out there and find some more!
You can find Robert Whyte’s “Field Guide to Spiders of Australia” here.