Funnel webs in Orange NSW?

posted Jan 20, 2021, 5:58 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Jan 21, 2021, 2:58 PM ]

Yesterday I was interviewed by Ewan Gilbert from the Breakfast program at ABC Central West NSW — it turns out a few people in Orange (New South Wales, Australia) are finding funnel web spiders in their houses and worried that the feared Sydney Funnel Web Spider could be making its way there. If you want to hear the full interview (about 8min), you can here

In the interview I don't know how clear I managed to be (it was 6am for me in Perth!) before a coffee, but these were my main points in an extended version:

1 - The Sydney Funnel Web Spider (Atrax robustus) is extremely unlikely to be in Orange, I'd give this possibility a 0.1% chance! BUT...

2 - There are currently 35 described species of funnel web spiders in 3 genera: Atrax (3 species), Hadronyche (31 species) and Illawara (1 species). No described species of Atrax should occur near Orange, BUT...

3 - There could certainly be new undescribed species of the genus there! This could be a mind-blown moment for you if you are not into invertebrates — there are literally thousands of new species of insects and arachnids yet to be described in 2021, especially from Australia. Even the relatively well-known Sydney Funnel Web Spider (Atrax robustus) is probably a complex of at least 3 different species (ongoing and still unpublished work by Danilo Harms, Ricardo Lourenço, Svea Frank, Braxton Jones and myself is pointing that way!), two of which in the process of being described.

On the left is a photo (From Gray in Records of the Australian Museum, 2010, 62: 285–392) of Atrax robustus. If you see this little 'apophysis' (basically a little stump) on the second pair of legs (indicated with the red arrow), then it's a male in the genus Atrax, otherwise you are probably looking at a species of Hadronyche. But if you DO see that apophysis in an animal in Orange, please get in touch with me (, as it's almost certainly a new species of Atrax. :) Only the males have an apophysis, but if you find a funnel web walking about in your garden/house, it's very likely to be a male wandering around looking for girls to mate with (girls very rarely leave their funnels)!

4 - A couple of described species of Hadronyche could in fact be in Orange, that is way more likely. And they are VERY similar to Atrax, don't you think? The photo on the right is a Hadronyche (photo credit to Greg Tasney, photo available on Atlas of Living Australia). Plus, looking for that apophysis requires you being more intimate with the spider than you want to be! Even though some described species of Hadronyche might be in Orange, there is also the possibility of undescribed species of that genus there. My expectation is that whatever is being seen in Orange recently is a described or undescribed species of that genus, and given the distributions of the described species I am leaning towards a new species, but obviously no conclusion can be drawn without looking at the specimens under the microscope.

5 - Even though the Sydney Funnel Web Spider is potentially the most venomous of them, and Hadronyche seems to have less potent venom, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially given that there could be undescribed species of Atrax in Orange. If bitten, follow the first aid steps recommended by the Australian Reptile Park:

The most important thing is to keep still (specially the bitten limb), trying to keep a low heart beat, and get someone to take you to the hospital immediately (call 000 immediately if by yourself). The Australian Reptile Park also teaches you how to collect spiders for them (here), at your own risk of course. To date only 13 people died of a funnel web bite in Australia, and the last one was in 1983, before the anti venom was developed. Lets keep it like that ;)

6 - On a positive note, I would like to point out that if you find a black spider living in something that looks like a funnel inside your house (say in the bathroom, near the window, or even in the rear mirror of your car), that is almost certainly a black house spider (Badumna insignis). This spider is black and lives in something like a funnel, but it's much smaller than a funnel web, completely unrelated, and harmless. As a rule of thumb, if it can climb the walls and is not found on the ground, it's not going to be a true funnel web. Let them keep eating annoying bugs in your house ;)

A black house spider, NOT a funnel web. Photo credit by Bill & Mark Bell, from Atlas of Living Australia.

To finish, I'll give my opinion on the question of why are people seeing more of these spiders in Orange recently. Firstly, I do not believe spiders are moving their distributions inland due to climate change, a question I have been asked in the interview. These poor spiders are very long lived (long generation time), terrible at dispersing when young, and their distributions only change very slowly, not something that would change dramatically from one year to the next. They are more likely to shrink their distribution due to climate change and human disturbance. It's more likely, in my opinion, that they are simply being seen in the city more due to land clearing and expansion of housing into what was their natural habitat before. But once again, we need more studies to find out whether this is indeed the case!

Sexual conflict in mites (Sci Rep paper)

posted Feb 11, 2020, 10:18 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Feb 11, 2020, 10:19 PM ]

Scientific Reports just published my latest paper on bulb mites! The article describes a surprising result when I investigated the fecundity of female mites from colonies that had gone through artificial selection for larger fighting legs (a trait that only males of the fighter morph present). Basically these lines were selected for either larger legs or smaller legs in the fighters. Females and males of the other morph (scramblers) do not fight, so they have no benefit of having their legs enlarged, but in 2018 I showed that their leg sizes coevolved with that of fighters (published here in Proc B). Then I decided to investigate the costs females paid for these coevolved larger legs.

I expected that females from the up lines (who coevolved larger legs) would pay a cost for having these (perhaps useless) larger legs. It would be a classic case of sexual conflict, but elegantly demonstrated via artificial selection and coevolution. However, to my absolute surprise, females from these up lines evolved higher fecundity, rather than lower fecundity, compared to females from the down lines.

Sexual conflict theory predicted the opposite! I had no reason to expect this result — I just wanted to quantify the damage sexual conflict could be doing here. So what happened? I believe maybe by selecting on a condition dependent trait (these legs show condition dependence in the morph level, where larger males become fighters) I perhaps "accidentally" selected on other genes that elevate condition in the up lines, explaining the higher fecundity of females in such lines. This is of course just an ad-hoc hypothesis, so if you have a better explanation please get in touch with me as I would love to discuss!

It is hard to describe how much work goes into an experiment like this. My friend Huon and I worked on this artificial selection protocol for about a year and a half, and later we set up the fecundity trial and counted eggs for months — after all we counted a total of 26,731 mite eggs (they are TINY). 

Teaching award finalist @MQ

posted Aug 26, 2019, 9:00 PM by Bruno Buzatto

Teaching has always been extremely rewarding to me. I get to constantly interact with brilliant young minds, which in itself is an invaluable learning experience, and I also really enjoy the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for nature with my students. So you can imagine how happy I was to be nominated by 18 of my students for the a 2019 Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Student Nominated Award here at Macquarie University — check out the website hereI have also recently been gifted a beautiful tie (photo on the left) from Xinwei Wang, a Visiting Associate Professor in the department of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Macquarie Uni who sat through my lectures to further her grasp on biology. Thanks so much for the wonderful gift Xinwei, I am touched that you liked my lectures!

Finally, I also wanted to mention that the best performing student in the unit I convened last semester (Organisms to Ecosystems) was given a free copy of the book Life: The Science of Biology (Sadava et al.) as a prize for having performing so amazingly well. Mohamed Iyaaz Abdul Matheen was not only the top student in my unit, but he had the best performance I've ever seen in a unit — he scored 99% out of 100 marks! Mohamed comes from the Maldives, and we are lucky to have him as a student here at Macquarie University! Well done, Mohamed, and I hope to see you around the department excelling in other units and starting a brilliant career in whatever you decide to pursue!

Mate Choice and Parasite Resistance

posted Jun 19, 2019, 7:51 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Jun 19, 2019, 7:55 PM ]

For a few years now I have been involved in a unit at the University of Western Australia that consists on short research projects that get conducted individually by the students. This is not a mock exercise, but an actual research experiment that generates valuable data, and my publication with Kyana Pike (JEB, 2017) was the first one generated from one of these projects. This week I just published another paper (in Behavioral Ecology) that was half generated by a project in that unit.

Together with Larissa Assis, a student who took the unit in 2017, Leigh Simmons and I investigated female preference for male dung beetles who have higher parasite resistance. We did a cool little switch in the usual design of such experiments, and tested female preference for different males first, and then investigated their resistance to parasitic mites, in order to disentangle female choice based on the males' history of parasitism, but instead focus on whether females can assess the males' resistance to parasites per se. And we found that they can (no idea how!)!.

In the figure you can see that males who (later) had more mites (therefore they are less resistant) mated for longer with females. The order of the mating trial (first) and the experimental exposure to parasites (second) is not without problems (we discuss them in our paper), but we think we might have shed some new light on the problem. If females are in control of copula duration, and if that impacts the fertilization success of males (reasonable assumptions in my opinion), then we showed female choice for parasite resistance per se, which is cool and supports the parasite mediated sexual selection (PMSS) hypothesis by Hamilton and Zuk (1982).

Importantly, we also added data collected years ago by Janne Kotiaho (another author on the study) on the heritability of parasite resistance in these beetles, which showed strong heritability — another important assumption of the PMSS hypothesis!

My new "lab" at full steam!

posted Jun 4, 2019, 5:02 PM by Bruno Buzatto

I haven't posted anything here for quite a while, which is a reflection of how busy I get in the first semester while I am convening the unit "Organisms to Ecosystems" for over 240 students here at Macquarie University. However, if at one hand that unit has been keeping me super busy, it has also allowed me to expose my mite research to the great cohort of first year students here at MQ, which resulted in recruiting a number of fantastic volunteers to my group!

At the moment I have my research really picking up and starting to go at full steam again after my initial phase of adaptation to a new university and the whole slowing down in research due to moving from WA to NSW as well. And it's only picking up right now because of two vital things: (1) Macquarie Uni granted me a New Staff grant, worth $18K, with which I've been buying new research toys (like the microscope in the photo to the right) and (2) my army of amazing volunteers, with special thanks to Niah Delamotte, Pouya Zadbar, Daniel Allman, Betty Huang and Ryan Cuthbert. My New Staff grant also allows me to pay Joshua Hobbs (a second year undergrad) and Poncho Aceves (one of Mariella's PhD students) to do research assistant work for me, and together these 7 people have been absolutely crucial for my research to keep moving — massive thanks to you guys, you absolutely rock!! If I get a Nobel Prize I will share the money with you, I swear!

Fellow of the HEA

posted Feb 21, 2019, 11:23 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Feb 21, 2019, 11:25 PM ]

Last week I was granted the status of Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (an institution now known as Advance HE), which means that my teaching practice has been recognized as achieving the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and learning support in higher education. I am absolutely stoked with this awards, as it's the first official recognition of my teaching skills in higher education. This also allows me to use the postnominal FHEA after my name, which looks very serious and important! 

Getting this fellowship was not easy, and involved attending workshops, being trained in writing reflective accounts of my practice, and finally submitting a 3,000 application to the HEA. But it was a fantastic experienced, I learned a lot, and I hope it's just the first of my accomplishments as a university lecturer. Also, Macquarie University keeps a page with the record of their staff holding these fellowships (here), and I am happy to see my name already in there under the Faculty of Science and Engineering tab.

The importance of function for allometry

posted Sep 9, 2018, 9:03 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Sep 10, 2018, 7:52 PM ]

The Quarterly Review of Biology has just published a paper that I am really honoured to be part of, entitled "Sexual Selection and Static Allometry: The Importance of Function". I was invited to be part of this work by the first author William Eberhard, who has had an invaluable impact on my career from the very start — I met Bill at an arachnology conference when I was still an undergrad (2003 I think), and he was extremely supportive with me in the poster session, giving me a lot of advice and insight into the work I was presenting in that poster. Not to mention Bill was incredibly influential for the fields of cryptic female choice (after Randy Thornhill 'started' it), allometry of sexually selected traits and evolution of alternative mating tactics. So you can imagine how honoured I felt when invited by him to contribute to this paper on the importance of function to predict the allometric slope of sexually selected traits — we argue that such allometries can be better predicted if we split them into courtship traits, threat signals and weapons. We expect positive allometry to be common for threat structures (which might include weapons), but less common for male courtship signals, and we provide evidence for these predictions. Some of my observations presented in that poster in 2003 were included in this work, and were the main reason to trigger my participation. If you want to know more about this paper, check it out here.

Morph specific selection in Proc B

posted May 24, 2018, 12:38 AM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated May 24, 2018, 12:40 AM ]

Today Proc B published a paper I wrote with Huon Clark and Joe Tomkins (both at UWA) about our ambitious artificial selection experiment with the mite Rhizoglyphus echinopus. The experiment ran for about a year and a half, so we put a lot of our work (and lives!) into that experiment. The goal was simple — I wanted to test whether selection acting exclusively on one male morph (males of this species can conditionally be one of 2 morphs: fighters or scramblers) would affect the evolution of the other morph. Phenotypic plasticity theory predicts some level of developmental decoupling between morphs, and therefore potential for independent evolution, but we suspected the story was a bit more complicated than that. So we imposed selection for thicker (and thiner) legs on 6 lines of mites, always applying selection to fighter males only, focusing on their fighting legs.

After 9 generations we found that scrambler males (and females!) presented correlated evolution in the same direction as shown by fighters. This is not very surprising, as we already knew there were genetic correlations for this trait between male morphs and sexes. However, our approach is a powerful demonstration of a genetic constraint for the evolution of dimorphisms (between sexes and morphs), and goes one step beyond predicting correlated evolution through genetic correlations — we showed that correlated evolution in the lab! Now we know that, despite these constraints, the morphs did evolve (prior to the experiment!) very different morphologies, so what we demonstrated just shows that somehow male morphs overcame the genetic constraints (that are truly there!) to evolve divergent morphologies. But now we need to figure out how!

Move to Macquarie University!

posted Feb 11, 2018, 10:07 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Feb 11, 2018, 10:09 PM ]

I am extremely happy to announce that I just moved to Sydney to take a lecturer position at Macquarie University! I really wanted to announce this here and in social media a bit earlier, but the last few weeks have been so busy with the move that I am only 'pausing' to breathe and do 'less urgent' stuff now... After a long drive across the country (done in 9 days!), I am in Sydney for just over a week now, and currently in my second week here at Macquarie Uni. The place is amazing and the people fantastic, so I am sure this will be a great personal and professional experience. Macquarie Uni is beautiful and has an amazing infra structure, and Sydney is incredibly green (and hilly when compared to Perth!).

I already dearly miss Perth and all the amazing friends I have on the west side of the country, where I had the honour and pleasure to be part of the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at UWA for almost 9 years! But who knows, maybe I'll be back one day — my contract at MQ goes till mid-2019, so I'll be back to the job market after that. For now I hope I can make the most of this amazing opportunity here at Macquarie. By the way, I think there will be plenty of scuba diving, rock climbing, hiking, kiting, sailing, and kayaking to do around here as well ;)

Intralocus tactical conflict in JEB

posted Jun 12, 2017, 11:35 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Jun 12, 2017, 11:37 PM ]

The latest issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology features an article by Kyana Pike, Joe Tomkins and myself on a topic that I am fascinated about — the evolutionary conflict between different male phenotypes. In some species, alternative male phenotypes are linked to different tactics for securing matings, where large male morphs express weapons used to defend females or territories (like the thick legs of bulb mites or the forceps of earwigs displayed on the left), whereas small male morphs have reduced weaponry and sneak copulations. In these systems, theory predicts that the evolution of male dimorphism is facilitated if morphs are genetically uncoupled and free to evolve towards their phenotypic optima; however there is little evidence for male morphs responding independently to selection.

One way of investigating the potential for independent or correlated evolution between male morphs is by using quantitative genetics to estimate
the heritability and the intrasexual genetic correlations (between male morphs) of dimorphic and monomorphic traits, and comparing them. We did that with two different model systems, and found two contrasting patterns: earwigs exhibited low intrasexual genetic correlations for the dimorphic trait, suggesting that the conflict between male phenotypes is moving towards a resolution. Meanwhile, bulb mites exhibited high and significant intrasexual genetic correlations for most traits, suggesting that morphs in the species may be limited in evolving to their optima. It is surprising, however, that intrasexual dimorphism can evolve to be so evident in this system, despite such strong genetic constraints.

Another very cool aspect of this project is that it emerged from a short project in the unit 'Evolutionary Biology', here at the University of Western Australia. The lead author, Kyana, was at the time doing her honours at UWA with magpies, but Joe and I 'highjacked' her talent and hard work to our bulb mite project, and the result was this beautiful paper!

1-10 of 32