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A Researcher’s Perspective: Baudin and the Beauty of Spiders

When I was first asked if I was prepared to do this talk, I hadn’t seen the artwork from the exhibition. I expected that there would be drawings of the insects and spiders that were encountered on the voyage to southern Australia. However, there are none in this exhibition, nor could I find any when searching through the images on the Web. So, I apologise that I will not be making direct reference to the Baudin’s artistic work in relation to the beauty of spiders.

Baudin’s expedition around 1802 was not the only one to carry scientists and artists on the journeys of discovery. As you can see around you, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit created works of art, which are both stunningly beautiful and scientifically accurate.

Joseph Banks, who was the botanist on Captain Cook’s voyage of discovery in 1770, documented the plants that he found as they travelled up the east coast of Australia. He was accompanied for part of Cook’s voyage by the Scottish artist/draftsman, Sydney Parkinson, whose work appeared in Banks’ Florilegium.

Ferdinand Bauer was another artist who drew the flora and fauna collected on the first circumnavigation of Australia by Matthew Flinders. Jacques Arago was the artist on the explorations of Louis de Freycinet.

The drawings that these artists produced of the flora and fauna that they encountered are extraordinary in the quality and detail of the subjects that they drew and, again, as you can see around you, the creatures they represented are easily identifiable from their drawings and paintings.

The earliest records of spiders using the system of genus and species formalised by Carl Linnaeus, was by the Swedish arachnologist, Carl Clerck. In his 1757 work on the spiders of Sweden, artist Carl Bergquist produced amazingly detailed drawings of the Swedish spiders. One of the spiders on this page, the European House spider, is also a migrant to this country and can be found now in Tasmania.

As a researcher of the spiders here in Tasmania and at the Queen Victoria Museum, I am constantly attempting to identify the spiders that I find in the field and here in the Museum’s collection. My task is to determine the family, genus and then if possible, the species of the spiders. In many cases I have to rely on the drawings done by the early pioneers of arachnology. Some of these drawings are very good representations of the spiders and also show finer details of the spiders that are used to identify them. However, some of the images leave you wondering if the spider in the drawing actually matches the specimen in front of you.

Two German scientists who studied the spiders of Australia, Ludwig Koch and Eugen von Keyserling, produced a book called Die Arachniden Australiens (1871-1883). In it are the descriptions of hundreds of our spiders. It was illustrated by Keyserling, and remains the only illustration and description of many of the spiders up until this day. For example, I found a Whip spider the other day and it has not been re-described or photo illustrated in any form since Keyserling described it. Unfortunately, his drawing of it is just not clear enough to be sure. The reason that many of the spiders have not been updated in scientific journals is that there are just so many spiders and so few arachnologists to work on revising information, let alone describe all the new species being found.

As we progress into the 20th century, the camera became more widely used as a means of illustrating the scientific articles, such as in the descriptions of spiders by our local arachnologist, Vernon Victor Hickman. In 1927, in the Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, Hickman describes a trapdoor spider. It is illustrated with a black and white photograph, but still accompanied by a drawing showing the details of the eyes. While the photograph gives a good representation of the shape of the spider, the quality is such that many of the finer details are not seen and one has to rely on the accompanying description to determine if the collected spider is the one illustrated.

With the advent of colour photography and better macro lenses, the illustrations used in spider books gave the readers a much better image of the spiders and enabled them to identify them not only by the shape, but also by the colour and patterns on their bodies.

As an amateur arachnologist, my aim is to be able to provide illustrations of as many as possible of our Tasmanian spiders so that anyone can find a spider and look it up on the web and get an identity for the spider based on its appearance. Often I will send images of spiders to arachnologists here in Australia and around the world and they are very reluctant to give me a positive ID down to species level from just a photograph. These scientists often have never seen a live specimen of the spiders that they have described and the preserved specimens usually have lost their colour and patterning due to the time spent in alcohol. (Can happen to us too)

One example of a scientist not giving a positive identification is with a pair of spiders found here in Tasmania. They look very similar and their patterning and colours are often interchangeable. However, I have discovered that the chelicerae or fangs on one is yellowish and the other is dark coloured. Also, one is smaller than the other, one stays on its web when approached and the other will drop to the ground. These details are what the public need when trying to find out what the spider is that they have just found in their back garden.

I became fascinated with spiders when very young, but it was not until I eventually bought a digital camera that I really started seeing the beauty in the creatures. As I got closer and closer to the spiders I discovered that the little brown creature that jumped off a leaf was actually a tiny gem. This 4mm long Peacock Jumping spider is too small to see its details just with the naked eye, but here we can marvel at the beauty of such a tiny creature.

The first spider I photographed with my first digital camera was an enamel-backed spider. It was sitting on the middle of its web, spread between two bushes in our garden. I couldn’t believe the beauty of this spider and I had no idea what it was. This was the beginning for me of my passion for finding and photographing spiders.

This was early days in the life of the internet and it took me quite a while to discover its identity. However, this started for me the process of researching the names of the spiders that I came across in my garden. I started scrounging through second hand bookshops to find copies of old spider books and gradually photos and identifications started to appear on the Web. Now, there is a World Spider Catalogue which lists all the known and identified spiders around the world. This makes life a lot easier when trying to find the name for a spider.  Still, however, often the only reference to a spider is from an arachnologist like Keyserling who drew a spider back in the mid 1800s.

I have photographed over 300 different spiders here in Tasmania. Each of them has a different character and beauty. Some are aggressive, some placid, some ugly and nasty, but others are just beautiful. Take the Redback for instance. How many of you have looked closely at one of these spiders? They are so elegant in their shiny black outfit with the brilliant red sash down their back. The orange Badge Huntsman has a stunning multi-coloured badge on the underside of its abdomen. There are bright green Orb-web spiders and Crab spiders that frequent our gardens. Spiny Jewel spiders, Orange Triangular spiders and many others frequent our countryside. It is worth just stopping and to have a look at these beautiful creatures.

The spiders of Tasmania come in all sizes and shapes. Our largest spiders are the big Cave spiders, the Huntsman and Water spiders. All of these are gentle giants. More aggressive are the Funnel web spiders and Trapdoors. These are magnificent creatures, but definitely not to be handled. Our population of Wolf spiders is large and diverse. Some of these can often be found in the garden helping to keep control of the insect pests while the Orb-web spiders create the beautiful webs that adorn our gardens like jewels on a dewy morning.

In the Mole Creek caves are minute spiders less than one millimetre long. Walking by, you may notice a tiny white dot suspended from a rock outcrop. On closer observation, these suspended dots are perfectly formed spiders, complete with eyes and hairy legs. I often marvel at the detail that exists when we can actually get close enough to our spiders and spend the time looking at the beauty that exists.

So, from this talk today, I hope you can appreciate the work that artists have done in the process of describing the creatures and plants that occur in Australia and also to take away an appreciation for the beauty of spiders that you come across. Don’t just stomp on the eight legged invader of your home, collect it in a glass, have a look at its beauty, then deposit it right down the back garden.

 

 

John Douglas, QVMAG Honorary Research Associate

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