Secret life of spiders unveiled

By Julian Swallow 1 September 2010
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The South Australian public are helping out with one of the biggest spider surveys ever attempted.

WITH THE TYPICAL AUSTRALIAN suburban garden containing up to 200 types of spider, it’s clear they’re all around us, whether we like it or not. Now experts heading up Operation Spider – a community-driven survey of South Australian spiders – are working to improve our knowledge of these creepy-crawly companions.

“We want to discover more about spiders and their behaviour, and the way in which people interact with them,” says project leader Professor Chris Daniels, an urban ecologist at the University of South Australia. “We’re expecting a huge response because spiders stimulate such strong reactions.”

New species

Operation Spider, launched Wednesday, is run by the University of South Australia in conjunction with ABC local radio, the SA Museum and the SA Department for Environment and Natural Resources. The project is enlisting the public to gather detailed information on the most common spiders found in SA backyards, as well as public attitudes to them – and then to submit them via a 15-minute questionnaire.

“We hope to debunk rumours and learn more about our creepy, little, eight-legged friends,” says Chris.

He told Australian Geographic that he wouldn’t be surprised if several new types of spiders are discovered during the course of the survey, the results of which will be published in academic journals and made available to the public.


Citizen science

A so called ‘citizen science’ project, this is one of an increasing number of initiatives aimed at co-opting willing members of the public to help collect data. These projects allow researchers to benefit from information gathered over larger areas and time frames than might otherwise be possible.

Chris’ team has previously used public help on similar projects looking at bluetongue lizards, magpies and suburban possums. They are “developing some of the most innovative and successful approaches to increasing public involvement in science…anywhere in the country,” comments Associate Professor Darryl Jones an ecologist from Griffith University in Brisbane.

“Enlisting thousands of people from all over the region could never be replicated by even the richest researchers,” he says – plus these projects also increase public awareness of scientific work and promote better community management of wildlife.

Read more about the fear of spiders in our feature “Along came a spider”