This Wolf Spider Is Special

Rare species found on Alberta glacier is now part of the Barcode of Life project

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Yep, that’s a spider pictured on Gerry Blagoev’s computer screen. Eight hairy legs. Black hairy body. Look closely and you might see all eight eyes and the microscopic claws on the tips of its legs, claws used to hunt insects and other spiders on the ground.

It’s not just any spider, insists Blagoev, a research associate in U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). It’s a rare species of wolf spider, so unusual that its telltale genetic identifier is being entered for the first time in the growing species database in the DNA barcoding institute on campus.

Seated at his lab bench, he picks up a box filled with finger-length glass vials and plucks one out. The ethanol-filled bottle contains seven specimens of Melocosa fumosa. They were all collected this past summer in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, on a glacier more than 2,000 metres up Mount Edith Cavell.

The collectors?

They were Guelph biologists and students aboard the BIOBus, the institute’s signature white RV emblazoned with colourful logos and images of plants, animals and DNA bits. This was the third field season for the collections vehicle, which had already covered parts of Canada and the United States in previous years.

With a rotating crew of U of G scientists and students, and with BIO photographer Jay Cossey at the wheel, the BIOBus covered eight states and five provinces from Florida to Arizona to British Columbia between late February and late August. Along the way, the team members snared tens of thousands of invertebrate samples in their collecting traps, sweep nets and sifting pans. In some places, such as Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park, summer arrived with a storm of bugs.

In her Canada Day blog posting, BIO collections technician Jillian Smith wrote: “Collecting insects at Prince Albert was really great, but the mosquitoes and black flies did their share of collecting too.”

The two-time Guelph grad now organizes the BIOBus schedule, including snaring the all-important permits for collecting in state and national parks. “Even the BIOBus itself was a magnet for insects,” she wrote. “Horseflies swarmed the bus wherever we went, but luckily they were nice enough to leave us alone.”

This year’s U.S. itinerary included Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Florida and New Mexico. Team members collected in state parks and stopped at several institutions to sample and photograph specimens in existing invertebrate collections.

After a two-week hiatus back from the States, Cossey took the wheel with a new collection team. They headed for Vancouver Island, with week-long stops en route including Pukaskwa National Park in northern Ontario; Prince Albert National Park, their most northerly stop in Saskatchewan; and Alberta’s Jasper National Park, the largest of its kind in the Rockies.

Samples included plenty of insects ─ beetles, moths, butterflies, flies, mosquitoes, dragonflies ─ but also spiders like those wolf spiders on the Jasper glacier and even marine invertebrates such as sea anemones and starfish from Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island.

By now, many of those specimens have undergone lab analysis at the BIO. There, researchers are isolating the telltale bit of DNA that enables them to distinguish species of organisms and add them to the growing reference library of DNA barcodes. DNA barcoding was developed at Guelph by integrative biologist Paul Hebert, director of the BIO.

In September, scientists from 25 countries met in Toronto to launch the International Barcode of Life Project. Hebert is scientific director for that global project as well; it aims to identify five million specimens from 500,000 species within five years.

“It’s important to know the biodiversity of our planet,” says Blagoev, an arachnid specialist originally from Bulgaria who’s been with the BIO for two years. Quite apart from the need to preserve organisms on their own merits, he says, a seemingly innocuous invertebrate like that rare wolf spider might serve as an indicator of ecosystem changes caused by factors like climate change or pollution. “Many species are disappearing without our knowing at all.”

Bees and wasps are a research specialty for Julie Stahlhut, a post-doc from the United States who came to Guelph this year. But she was as busy as other BIOBus members popping insects of all kinds into vials on her first trip to British Columbia this summer.

She says DNA barcoding enables scientists to distinguish between often-cryptic species of pollinators whose activity ultimately helps feed other species and maintain the planet’s biodiversity. “If two species have different needs, and both are pollinators, how do we conserve both?” she says. “Or if we’re losing one, how to conserve the other?”

Lose a few species, adds Valérie Lévesque-Beaudin, a BIO collections technician, and who knows how many other creatures or even entire systems might fail. “We’re all part of the ecosystem.”

Swimming in the Pacific Ocean and collecting on the beach and in Vancouver Island’s temperate rainforest were treats for Kate Perez, a fourth-year biological sciences student who worked all summer for BIO. So was her unexpected sighting of a black bear while collecting near camp in Prince Albert. “I consider it one of the coolest experiences I have had to date. Being that close to it was exciting even though it was a passive black bear.”

She shared that experience with Jizel Miles, a fourth-year zoology student. If the bear sighting was a highlight, a low point for Miles was being rushed to hospital one night with what turned out to be food poisoning. “I went out collecting the next day.”

For Cossey, trip highlights this year included the Pacific Rim as well as Florida’s Keys and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.

They parked for a week at Hidden Valley Ranch in southern New Mexico. “It’s hilly, dry, but so beautiful; it’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Cossey, who also found teeming insect life in Toad Suck, near Conway in central Arkansas. With a name like that, “you’d think trailer parks, but it was probably one of the most affluent towns in the state.”

The crew logged eight- to 10-hour days on the road, using the RV’s global positioning system to stay more or less on track. They stayed in campgrounds and parks, where their vehicle always attracted attention.

Says Cossey: “Wherever we go, somebody says, ‘Oh, I’m from Guelph,’ or ‘I know somebody.’ It comes up every day, no matter where we are, how remote or obscure a place it is.”

The Guelph biologists often gave impromptu talks about barcoding to other campers, such as the Scout troop they met in Kissimmee. In a park in Western Canada, they spoke one evening to a crowd gathered for a barbecue. “We’re a bit like ambassadors.”

Click here to see panoramic views of BIOBus trips from this year and previous years.

Click here to read a blog entry by Eric Eaton, an entomologist and author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, who met the BIOBus in Arizona this past spring.