My big fat crazy spider year

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 31 December 2021 17:54

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 2021. The weirdest year EVER that very nearly was a total write-off (apart from several awesome things that happened). One of those was the spider year listing challenge, that ran through 2021 like a thread of fine spider silk, stitching my life together like arachnological punctuation. This is the third and FINAL year that I have done this and I will NOT be doing it next year.

The rules: See as many spider species as you can in the UK between 1st Jan and 31st Dec 2021. You have to see it yourself in the wild (but you don't have to find it yourself). Now I wasn't going to do it again in 2021, in fact I didn't even go out in the field until late March and even then I wasn't going to take part. But by the end of June, simply through so much varied and complementary field work, I had amassed a big list and this included some real megas. Many of which were from the baseline monitoring I am setting up at Blean for the Wilder Blean project. So suddenly I thought, this might be the foundation for a really big list this year. I had reached 392 in 2019 and that was a mission. Was 400 possible?

Well, yeah. The final score was 473! I reckon that 500 would of been possible if I had managed to get to Scotland in November but due to weather, the pandemic and work commitments, I called it off. And I was lucky to not be trapped in a pub for a whole weekend with an Oasis cover band. So the season finale was a trip to down to see Tylan in Devon and Cornwall where I added 18 new spiders for the year, eight of which were lifers. I REALLY wanted to get to 500 to stop me from trying to do this again. 

So, 473 species is just under 70% of the UK's spiders. Of these, 53 species were new to me in 2021. There are only a further 38 species that I have seen on top of this (meaning I have now seen 511 spiders in the UK - almost 75% of all our spiders). Here are some of the highlights from 2021. 

A massive thanks to ALL the people that helped throughout the year but especially Tylan who was a great sport to compete with and did amazing to get to 400 species without living in the south east (I definitely have an advantage here). |Here is the mighty Arctosa fulvolineata. Which involved an epic dash across Devon and some frantic stone-turning, only to find four under one stone. It's big. It's beefy. And it has a dreamy creamy stripe. It's also a saltmarsh obligate which is well cool and quite unusual for spiders like this. A great December record too.

Perhaps he highlight for me though was Pistius truncatus at Blean. Not seen in the UK for 20 years, I found two immatures two months and less than 50 m apart. It has since been found in two other areas within Blean.

Even rarer and also at Blean was the novelty-headed bead-knob spider, Walckenaeria mitrata. Behold it's knob! Last seen in UK in 2004!

And Tylan took me to see these new aliens in Plymouth. What a brute of spider and what weird webs they have. Like fake Halloween webs. Badumna longinqua.

I added a couple of nice jumpers in 2021. Calositticus floricola has to be my favourite. Found this new to Staffordshire.

And also Calositticus caricis at a known site in Surrey.

Back to Staffordshire, thanks to Joshua Styles I was able to see Gnaphosa nigerrima at its two known sites in one day.

And in Surrey, the rather attractive Cheiracanthium pennyi. Phwoar.

Back to Sussex, Eratigena picta from Amberley Chalk Pit. On the second attempt. 

But on the first attempt, I picked up Centromerus albidus. The first UK record since...1969!!! And a new county record. This is probably spider of the year but it was very small and very dull and very dead by the time I looked at it. So it's not really a 'front cover' species. But I mean. Phwoarrr! Right?

A trip to Sherwood Forest with Richard Gallon and Tylan Berry produced an epic haul. The highlight being a male Mastigusa macrophthalma! Look at those palps!

Earlier that day, a walking Malteser. Meta bourneti in a drain!

An after dark trip to Surrey to see the incredible Alopecosa fabrilis with Mike Waite. What an incredible beast. Mike that is, LOL ;) (this spider is also featuring on the front of this post).

And also from Surrey. A myrmecophile money spider with a comb-over and tiny eyes. Acartauchenius scurrilus. As unpronounceable as it is weird.

I mean. I could just put picture after picture up now it was such a good year but what I think I will do is post the whole list. Here are all 473 species in alphabetical order with the species new to me in 2021, highlighted in bold. But as I suspect this is where I will lose all but the most hardcore arachnologists, I'll summarise this as follows (in terms of spiders and then in terms of other stuff): Spiders first. It was insane year. 473 is unlikely to be beaten easily BUT if time (and to a lesser extent money) were no issue, it could easily be done with a bit of prep. Scotland is probably essential. 

Other stuff. It was an insane year. I lost a dear friend, Tony Gowland. Mum has been really unwell too and is back in hospital again now as of Christmas Eve (get well soon Mum) and this very soon after Dad passing away in Nov 2020 has been tough. Six months of something weird in my leg from a Lincolnshire cornfield is still, two biopsies later, undiagnosed. But just when you thought it was a total write-off, something unexpected happened at the end of 2021. I got my act together and after a four year hiatus, started dating again and now have a girlfriend and she's awesome! Here's to a better 2022! Happy New Year ya'll. Now eat my list.

450 spiders in a year IS possible!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 5 November 2021 17:06

This is Clubiona rosserae. It's a nationally rare/vulnerable species known from a handful of fens in East Anglia only. It's an important spider for me as I reached two significant milestones yesterday at the same time. Firstly, this is my 450th species of spider this year. That's 58 species more than 2019 and with nearly two months to go. There are lots of trips planned before the challenge ends on the 31st December. Is 500 possible? I doubt it. But 475 surely is. It's the 44th new species of spider I've had this year too.

It's also my 500th species of spider ever in the UK. Which bizarrely means that there are only 50 species of spider I've ever seen that I've not seen this year.

Yesterday, I went to Chippenham Fen and met up with Mike Taylor, Helen Smith and Alan Thornhill. It was very wet underfoot, so suction sampling was a struggle and sieving very messy. The other new species for the year was Hygrolycosa rubrofasciata. There were lots of spiderlings of these, the only place I have definitely seen this species before.

I might also have found Walckenaeria alticeps at last but the specimen ended up in someone else's pocket. That will be a lifer if it is that species.

So next up, I have some trips planned out to furthest West Sussex looking for a couple of Centromerus species and then Sunday it's Dungeness to look for Apostenus fuscus.

Pretty pleased with 450 species, especially as I didn't think I was going to do it this year! Only need about six species to get two two thirds of the UK fauna in a year.

Here is a shot Helen took of a fen creeper.

Pretty as a picta

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Saturday 21 August 2021 18:30

I went back to Amberley Chalk Pit today but this time, Tylan was with me. We got one of the target species. This is the first record of Eratigena picta in the UK since 2009. It was first found in the UK at Amberley Chalk Pit in 1982, but it hasn't been seen there since 1997. Now I am pretty sure I have been rearing a tiny one for the last two months since I first went there in early July, it's shed its skin twice but is still way smaller than all the ones we saw today. It's a nationally rare/vulnerable species only ever known from four hectads, and last recorded by Scotty on the North Downs in 2009.

As an adult, this thing is maybe just a little bigger than Tegenaria silvestris (which is abundant here but more tied to the scree).

Tylan was really good at finding them and it soon became clear it wasn't in the scree (like the one I found in July was) but on the slopes around the roots of the plants. The gentle rain helped highlight the webs.

Here are some more shots. I really like the speckled cephalothorax. It's really unlike any spider I have seen and the epigyne looks more like a big liny's, such as a Neriene. Here are some more shots.

And a fungus-infected Amaurobius ferox. What a strange looking thing. I have retained the specimen and will hopefully get it sent to the county specialist for identification.

That's 345 species for the year. Great to see Tylan after nearly a year. A nice distraction from everything else that's going on. He's closing on me now though, so it's still all to play for, for 2021!

A big thanks to Amberley Heritage Museum for their help too!

Why English names of species should ALWAYS be capitalised

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 19 August 2021 15:59

So this has been a pet hate of mine for years. And after a rant on Twitter recently, I thought it was best to put all my thoughts down on this in one place. Firstly, this is not a rant at inexperienced naturalists,  those with a passing interest or those new to the subject. This is very much directed at those who are intentionally spelling the names of species in lower case. It's mainly nature conservation charities, natural history writers and journalists. And of course, Wikipedia! New nature conservation projects that start up are now incorrectly following this trend and there isn't really a resistance pushing back on this. Just because its written like this on Wikipedia, it really doesn't mean it's right!

But before anyone says it, I am 100% pro scientific names. This isn't about that. This is about having a standardised, scientific and useful structure to how we write about species in English. Quite often, I would find any scientific names would be kicked out of any writing I did BUT on top of this, the correctly capitalised English names would be written in lower case. It's infuriating. I'm also not talking here about globalised names like Eurasian Nuthatch. It's a Nuthatch as far as I am concerned. But that's a different argument. 

Since I started this blog over eleven years ago, I have only ever displayed just the English names, ONLY when they are in regular use. So, for macro moths, butterflies, dragonflies, crickets etc. Beyond that I tend to use English names with the scientific name or just the scientific name if there is no standardised/regularly used English name at all. Many people new to entomology will not know that many English names have been created in recent years and are not in wide use by entomologists. This can lead to a difficult situation where newcomers are talking a different language to specialists. For this reason, I am not condoning using English names over scientific names at all and I encourage beginners to not be afraid of scientific names and to embrace them even. 

This is is simply about having a standardised approach to how we write these common names. The dumbing down of English names and the resistance against using scientific names are connected though. They are both areas we are failing in our nature writing, assuming people can't cope with anything complex. We are pandering to the lowest common denominator and it's a big part of why so many complex issues in conservation are so poorly understood by the general public. 

But get this, the natural world is REALLY, REALLY complicated. Simple solutions to complex problems do not work. In fact they are really harmful. So we should be embracing complexity and nuance.

I digress. Here's why it's a bad idea to write species names in English in lower case.

It's confusing

I once wrote a piece about Scarce 7-spot Ladybirds. The name was reduced to scarce 7-spot ladybird and an image was sourced of a 7-spot ladybird with the adjective scarce put in front of it. As you know, 7-spot Ladybird is not scarce. In fact, it's my most frequently recorded invertebrate. While Scarce 7-spot Ladybird is indeed quite scarce. A totally different species with a very different ecology.

But this works the other way around too. I once had my adjectives in front of scientific names mistaken for species names in a report. Well, if your house style is to do this, why would you assume any otherwise? Another reason to not have such a ridiculous 'house style' in the first place, especially when you have limited knowledge of the species you are publishing information on. It went like this. I had written something like "the scarce deadwood click beetle Ampedus elongantulus". Now the scientific name was discarded to find the text now talking about the 'scarce deadwood click beetle' as if it were a species name. This was done to a number of species from some text I had written. Infuriating!

There is more info in these capitals than some people realise

We have three species of forester in the UK (metallic green day-flying moths). Yes, you read that right. It's lower case because I am not referring to a species here, in fact I am referring to three species from two genera. They are; Cistus Forester, Scarce Forester and the Forester. It's very easy to get the Forester in the strict sense of the species confused with forester in the generic sense. There's the rub. There is meta data in those capitals telling you that it's a species. Distinct from being a genus, family or some other way of grouping things together. They are all shown at the top of this post but here is the Forester, perhaps the hardest one to find in Sussex.

And not far behind the lower case names is the abandonment of hyphens

Not always the case but if hyphens are going to be dropped or used incorrectly, it's often when species are written in lower case. Take for example the plant White Beak-sedge. In lower case it reads white beak-sedge and if you drop the hyphen, it's now white beak sedge. Now how can you tell what genus that's in? Is it a sedge (Carex) or a beak-sedge (Rhynchospora). There is yet more more meta data here. And you know what? No one should get to take that away and leaved behind some reduced form of a name that has less information in it, in the name of 'style' or easy reading. 

The arguments for using lower case are utterly unconvincing

They are: it's too complicated. Rubbish. Is it too complicated to write your name, a book, a film or a place correctly? Of course it isn't. It is only confusing because we now have two systems (and some other variants in between these two systems) working concurrently. It's no surprise when newcomers reach for Wikipedia that they start writing them incorrectly in lower case. It doesn't read well. Again, total nonsense. Just look up and see if it reads badly. Or read British Wildlife or any of the other publications that get it right. No one ever died from reading a capital letter or two in the middle of sentence. Capitals are going out of fashion. Yeah this one really doesn't wash with me for all the reasons under 'it's too complicated'. I'm aware language can change but not all change is good or should be embraced. It's grammatically incorrect. And finally we get to the real sticking point. They are not proper nouns (apparently). Hence why we end up with the hideous chimera of naming styles, such as Cetti's warbler and Mediterranean gull. Yuck! And here I will explain why I believe it is perfectly correct to think of these names as proper nouns...

There can be no better use of proper nouns than to denote species names

When we talk about species, we are not talking about individuals. We are talking about genetically distinct life forms, each with a near enough UNIQUE genetic code. It's the code we are really talking about. This is therefore a more than adequate reason to use proper nouns when referring to them. It would also draw the naming inline with the scientific nomenclature to some extent. It would result in less confusion.

These names mean a lot to naturalists

I have met very few recorders, naturalists and entomologists who actually like the lower case names, literally less than five people I've encountered have ever strongly stuck up for it. While I have met hundreds of naturalists who detest it. To me, it is a significant part of the name, in many cases taken away from us by people working outside of the field. And as said above, there is a reduced name left behind, with considerable margins for error. I just can't keep quiet about it any more. So I decided to get organised.

I mean how can a Subaru Forester be seen as a 'compound proper noun' but a Cistus Forester isn't? Yet more examples of how the natural world is seen as inferior to things that have been created by people. OK, I see why Subaru is a proper noun, it's a make. Fair enough but the Forester part? Each of those vehicles coming off the production line follows a blueprint that makes them similar to one another but different to other models of that make. So how is that any different to what I'm talking about here? The grammatical rules are not clear cut and as mentioned above, can you think of a better example than to use them? Language is fluid and flexible. We should use a set of rules IF they work in favour of bettering that area of language. There is a clear case for that here.

Having a standardised and structured approach to English names would therefore benefit recording and the natural world. With less ambiguity on how names are written we can bring some of the rigour that we have from scientific names into the English names of species. There is no better time to be having this conversation as so many new people are getting into wildlife recording and ecological restoration and as mentioned above, they are usually hungry for English names of species at first.

What can you do?

Well if you're having this thrust upon you by your organisation or boss, tell them that you're not happy with it and why. Try and push them in the right direction. Feel free to send them this blog.

When you write an article for someone, tell them how the names are going to be written. Use it as a negotiating point for giving someone the work. You can only use my photo or text if you spell the name correctly etc.

If these things don't work, just write them correctly and see what happens. If enough people have to spend ages putting names into lower case then surely they will get the message one day. It's the naturalists providing the content, I really think we have some leverage here.

When new projects are set up, give people a steer in the right direction. There is a tendency to reach for Wikipedia. But you would be better reaching for a field guide, British Wildlife, the NBN gateway species accounts or the JNCC Taxon Designations spreadsheet.

Let's properly get organised. If there is anyone out there that feels as passionately about this as I do, drop me a message or a comment and you can join a growing number of us who are proper fed up with this.

You might also detect a little anger in my tone here. You'd be right! To have this inflicted upon you from the very first piece of writing you ever did for years is utterly infuriating. But we did work on Sussex Wildlife Trust over the years and they have brilliantly switched to writing species in capitals, a really positive move and this shows how much this particular wildlife trust puts recording, wildlife and science over style and trends. A really progressive step forward. So it can be done! 

Who would you rather be on the side of? The style gurus and the grammar police or the passionate naturalists who actually write the content and know what they are talking about? 

I really don't think this should ever have been a 'choice'. We should have one system.

The Revolution Starts Here!


Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 13 August 2021 19:10

*sigh* So long, old friend.

Three weeks ago, I had a rare weekend off. The plan was to meet up with my mate Thomas Curculio (you should see his rostrum - he puts Gonzo to shame) and head to Wybunbury Moss on the Saturday and Chartley Moss on the Sunday. Both sites we had permits for and both being dangerous floating mires (or schwingmoors), it was good having someone who had been there before to guide. I love floating mires, probably the most exciting habitat for spiders. But being close to where I grew up makes them all the more exciting.

Now there were three targets at Wybunbury that I really wanted to get. And as I was researching them the night before from gen provided by Richard Gallon (thanks, man!), an incredible coincidence occurred. Stewart Sexton copied me into a Tweet (thanks, dude!). Joshua Styles (thanks, fella!) found one of the target species at a second UK site. Just over the border in Cranberry Bog in Staffs. As the crow flies, it's only 3 miles from Wybunbury in Cheshire. So I offered to go and have a look after Wybunbury, to try and find another and confirm it. Both Thomas Curculio and I have tried numerous times to access Cranberry Bog and failed...

But first, Wybunbury. The only bog I have seen with Common Cow-wheat growing in the bog. It's really odd but looks really cool (Josh was telling me this is a unique community). And more White Beak-sedge than I have ever seen before. 

It didn't take long to find a Gnaphosa nigerrima (nationally rare and vulnerable - not surprising given that it's only ever been known from the one bog)We saw maybe 15 of these, mostly adult females and one sub-adult male. Much smaller than I was expecting and actually not far off a big Zelotes/Drassyllus. In Sphagnum but also in the suction sampler. Actually it was dwarfed by an adult female Haplodrassus signifer I found there.

It did however take three and a half hours to find Calositticus floricola (nationally rare, near threatened). Thomas found two adult males in the last few minutes of our time there. The other goody there is a tiny liny Carorita limnaea (nationally rare, vulnerable), so would have to wait until I got back to the microscope to see if I had found that one (but I was pretty sure I had picked up a few females).

Back to Calositticus floricola though. This might be the best jumping spider I have ever seen. Up close, it really is something else. Here is a whole sequence of the male.

And I mustn't forget this Wybunbury speciality! Thomas was great at finding these wonderful Cryptocephalus decemmaculatus. A lifer indeed (thanks, mate!). Every species in this genus is a joy.

So, onto Cranberry Bog, Staffs. The same frustrating access antics AGAIN. How on Earth do we get into it?! I mean, we could see it through the trees, oh help me someone, help me please! Sorry, went all Kate Bush for a minute there. But the black peaty water under the Alders between us and the bog was not an option. We nearly gave up but I spotted some tracks through and eventually spotted the Indiana Jones style 'rope bridge' that Joshua had told us to look for. We were in! But we would never be the same again.

First sweep net had THREE Calositticus floricola in it. That'll be new to Staffordshire then. Here is the adult female I caught. It's so much easier to find this at Cranberry than Wybunbury. How can this have been overlooked all these years? We reckon we found 30+.

And it didn't take long to confirm Joshua's amazing record of Gnaphosa nigerrima at it's now second UK site! What I love about this is that I never would have gone there that day if I hadn't seen that tweet. So this jumper is also in part down to that. Also there were a few Pirata piscatorius there, another species scarce in Staffs. This bog is way wetter than Wybunbury and Chartley.

And a big patch of Marsh Cinquefoil. Here with a Blue Shieldbug on it.

For the year, that's me on 339 species of spider. The 400 is still very much on the table but August can pretty much do one as far as I am concerned.

Going through the specimens back at the accommodation was, as ever, thrilling (I did indeed get Carorita and a few other goodies I wouldn't see down south). Just like that though, my world turned upside down. I got the kind of text you never want to get. One of my favourite people in the whole world was gone suddenly. My old friend Tony Gowland. I was proper heart broken and have found it hard to write this blog until now. To be honest, spiders have took a back seat for a few weeks. Twelve years ago, it was Tony that got me my old desk, which I use every time I look down the microscope or write a report. In fact, most of these blog posts. So know this Tone, every single freelance conservation project I do or have ever done, you've helped me with it and in turn, you've helped nature. But not only that, it looks bloody brilliant in the process.

Sometime in 2009 a telephone call went like this...
Tony: "Alright Graybags, do you want a desk?"
Graeme: "I just bought one, thanks mate."
Tony: "Not like this you ain't. It's a Victorian gentleman's desk."
Graeme: "Errrr-"
Tony: "You need to say now though, as I need to empty the van."
Graeme: "YES PLEASE!"

I would literally pay people to keep calling me Graybags. How little you realise how important such a daft name is until it's gone.

I will miss you, brother.

Down t'pit

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 4 July 2021 09:57

Rained off again yesterday and most of today it would seem. Frustrating how quickly you can get behind after being ahead. But an opportunity to do some spider recording it was (they are less effected by weather than a lot of other taxa and if you pick the right habitat, the problems of wet vegetation that stop a full survey can be minimised). So I got in touch with Amberley Museum and got access to a few areas of Amberley Chalk Pit. I had two targets in mind; Iberina candida and Eratigena picta. I failed to find both (well, I might have an immature of the latter) but I don't care. I found something even rarer. But first, the supporting cast...

Almost the first rock I turned over had a Zodarion retreat underneath it! Never actually seen this before so was pretty pleased. I found two females of what is Zodarion italicum. I have records for this at Shoreham Beach but they are not in my database for some reason, other than that this is only the second West Sussex record.

A real surprise for me was this stunning Xerolycosa nemoralis. I have only ever seen this on bare sandy ground on heaths. Its nationally scarce and a new 10 km square record. It just shows that spiders will use any structural type that is analogous to what they need. The soil here is exposed and friable, a successional state of old quarries that is quite uncommon. Many are vegetated over, mossy or with a tight sward. Not so here.

Moving to the scree generated some excitement. I spent an hour trying to catch an adult of what I thought was going to be Eratigena picta. It was Tegenaria silvestris. Bugger. A clearly very different looking spider but in the heat of the moment, I was rather excited. It was still new for the year, however!

Scree is hard to work. My suction sampler was useless here. All I had was my hands. I found Hahnia nava and montana but no Iberina candida either. I did see plenty of Palliduphantes pallidus.

And found some nice adult Mitostoma chrysomelas

And a huge golden yellow liny that escaped me. Only to resurface some 30 minutes later. I am extremely persistent. It was Saaristoa abnormis. Only the second time I have seen it and my first male/Sussex specimen and a new 10 km square.

Rosy Woodlouse was extremely common under stones there.

And who needs pheromones when you have a suction sampler? Six-belted Clearwing sucked off the chalk!

Walking around the old buildings in the Museum, the UK's biggest jumping spider, Marpissa muscosa, caught my eye.

But it wasn't until I got home and looked at the specimens that things got really exciting. A little yellow thing about 1.5 mm (that I have to say, I have no memory of collecting) jumped out immediately as a Centromerus when I clocked the epigyne, and not one I recognised either. I just wanted to completely rule out Centromerus serratus, so asked Tylan for a second opinion and he kindly sent me a photo of an epigyne and I was happy to rule it out then (he sees that more than me and I don't have a specimen of the female). It was Centromerus albidus! Critically Rare, Nationally Rare and get this...not seen in the UK since 1969!!! So this made up for not finding the targets as this is significantly rarer and totally unexpected. It's also new to Sussex and you can find out more on the SRS page here

The page mentions Beech woods, so this is a totally different habitat to the old sites.

I got seven new spiders for the year, ending on 312 (including Tetragnatha obtusa and only my second ever Troxochrus scabriculus - EDIT, it wasn't Troxochrus. it was Entelecara flavipes). Here is a list of the species seen that had conservation status.

Centromerus albidus - NR/CR
Drassyllus lutetianus - NS
Marpissa muscosa - NS
Zodarion italicum - NS
Xerolycosa nemoralis - NS
Entelecara flavipes - NS

Six-belted Clearwing - Nb
Orthochaetes setiger - Nb

It was very kind of the Museum to let me access this fantastic site. It's not a public access site though, and is dangerous without a brief, so please don't go there without talking to the Museum. One thing I am sure of, there is more to be found at this amazing site and I will be back.

So what better way to celebrate than with some Mouse Rat?

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