Novel discoveries and the challenge of funding cycles

Lab Note #2
Oct 05, 2016

This female black widow has built a web on a custom-made frame in the laboratory. A male has mounted and will soon attempt to mate. Those with a keen eye can see the mass of silk directly behind the male--this is the result of male 'web reduction' activity, triggered by chemicals on the silk.

In my lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough , we rear several species of 'widow spiders' in large numbers for use in studies of behaviour, development and physiology (the western black widow is just one of over 30 species found worldwide). 

Our research has been supported for years by publicly-funded Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council  (NSERC) of Canada, through the aptly named 'Discovery Grant' program. We have made many fundamental discoveries about the behaviour, development, and sensory abilities of these fascinating spiders. These discoveries have interesting things to tell us about evolution more broadly, and many of these stories have made their way into textbooks to illustrate important concepts.

One the strengths of the NSERC system is that it funds your research program for a 5 year period, which gives you time to complete a substantial body of work, and make progress on the questions you have proposed to answer. One of the challenges is the need to set out a budget and proposed expenditures years in advance. While my grant provides funding for field work, my proposal for this work on the west coast was a short field trip to assess population size and web density, followed by collection of spiders to bring back to the lab. However, Catherine's advocacy for a longer field season to 'really figure out what is going on'  convinced me that this population was worth a longer look. This summer, thanks to a research award I received from the University of Toronto Scarborough, I was able to fund a full 6 months in the field. It took some careful budgeting (from me and from Catherine and Sean) to make it work, but it has definitely been worth the investment!  The rich information Catherine and Sean gathered this year will yield some new papers. Equally important is the generation of new questions that could be addressed in field work that runs from the start to the end of the mating season. Armed with the extensive information from this past summer, we can design elegant, realistic experiments to test some of our ideas about the importance of communication in the field.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to make the same magic happen again next year with the funds I have. The main financial constraint is support for a field assistant throughout the summer. This is not an optional part of the project! Working alone at night with neurotoxic spiders is just not safe.

Your support for this project will help us follow up on novel insights, and by keeping an eye on how things really work in nature, perhaps help us make new discoveries about this species which we thought we knew well, but in fact is full of surprises.

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