Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Profile: Robb Bennett, Spider Researcher

Robb Bennett collecting in the Flathead, photo by Mike Roelofs. 

"...spiders are ruthless storm troops in the matriarchal anarchy that is the arthropod world: theirs is the most diverse, female-dominated, entirely predatory order on the face of the earth. As such, spiders are key components of all ecosystems in which they live." ---Robb Bennett, 1999

There is something about spiders that triggers an automatic negative response in people. We are often very fearful of them, and we worry about how poisonous they are.  Yet, for the most part, they are harmless and play a good and significant role in our ecosystems.  In spite of that, the fear about spiders results in a continuous stream of 'spider inquiries' at E-Fauna BC. Every week, several times a week, our readers ask us about spiders:  how to identify them, where they live, what they eat, and (the number one inquiry) if they are poisonous.  Fortunately, we can handle these inquiries because of the support for the E-Fauna project by one researcher who is happy to share his knowledge of spiders.
Robb Bennett is a professional entomologist who has studied the natural history of spiders for several decades.  He responds to every inquiry,  including the ones containing misconceptions and misinformation about poisonous spiders, Brown Recluse spiders, Hobo Spiders, and more.  Most people are concerned about big spiders they have seen, and wonder if these are harmful to their children. Some people are just plain terrified of spiders and want to know how to protect themselves.  Some are curious about spiders in general, some hear spiders singing, and some are absolutely certain they have Brown Recluse spiders living in their homes.  Robb is particularly interested in clearing up misconceptions about poisonous spiders, and notes that some doctors erroneously consider some human medical symptoms to be the result of spider bites--even though there is little or no evidence to support their view.  He is passionate about this--about the misdiagnoses that are  made by some medical practitioners, the clear lack of confirmed evidence about the toxicity of species like the Hobo Spider, and the facts that true spider bites are very rare and the chance of medical complications resulting from one is vanishingly small.

So how does one get to be a spider expert? Robb began studying spiders when he was an undergraduate studying entomology at the University of Guelph in Ontario in the mid-1970's. Subsequently he earned a M. Sc. and a PhD in spider taxonomy/systematics.  Since then, his interest in spiders has never waned and, today, Robb continues to collect and study spiders.  His collections have been placed in relevant museums, primarily in Canada (the Canadian National Collection) and the USA (primarily the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Smithsonian Institution, and the California Academy of Sciences).  He has collected in the USA and much of Canada, including  the maritime provinces, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, the prairies, and Ontario. He has also collected in eastern and southern Africa, parts of South America, the Caribbean, and other neotropical localities. He wishes more people would collect, because specimens are usually needed to identify spiders to the species level (especially so for the most interesting species which are almost always very tiny--perhaps only a millimetre in length).

Until recently, Robb was a researcher with the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, working with insects that feed on cones and seeds, and was the editor-in-chief at The Canadian Entomologist (2007-2011). In addition to volunteering time with E-Fauna BC, Robb has also contributed to work on species-at-risk in BC and to the work of COSEWIC--the national Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife. He is currently a research associate with the Royal British Columbia Museum, collaborating with two other spiders experts, museum collections manager Claudia Copley and museum volunteer Darren Copley, to document the full diversity of spiders in British Columbia. These days their research is focused on spiders that occur in alpine and sub-alpine areas in British Columbia. They aim to publish a field guide for the identification of British Columbia spiders which will include information on species' ranges and habitats. 
Here are some of Robb's responses to common questions about Hobos, Brown Recluses, and Black Widows:

1) Brown recluse spiders (Loxosceles reclusa) do not occur in Canada (and other recluse spider species have only ever been recorded in Canada a couple of times). 

2) The hobo spider (Tegenaria agrestis) is common in southern BC and is often mistakenly identified as a brown recluse, and is also mistakenly believed by many to be a medically important spider. 

3) Many other spiders in BC and other parts of Canada are often misidentified as brown recluse spiders. 

4) Pest control companies offering brown recluse control services in Canada are preying upon public paranoia and misinformation.

5) Some common spiders are large enough to bite people if provoked, and a bite from some of those spiders can be painful.  However, spiders do not seek out people to bite and true bites from spiders are rare.  Almost all reports of spiders biting people are fallacious. 

6) In BC, the only medically significant spider is our local species of black widow, which is very common in some areas of southern BC including parts of southwestern Vancouver Islands and in the south Okanagan.  Black widows, however, are generally shy and retiring and bites from them are extremely rare, even where the spiders are abundant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.