A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia by Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson

Cover featuring a close up photograph of the bright blue eyes of a peacock

Reviewed by Dr Tracey Churchill

Initially flicking through this book, I became so excited that finally our beautiful spider fauna has been exposed for its true nature: incredibly diverse, often colourful and always uniquely adapted to their special part of the world! I am personally indebted to the authors who have achieved in one wonderful book, what I have aimed to convey to others all my arachnological life: that spiders are amazing and deserve much more appreciation and admiration than we begrudgingly bequeath them.

Thanks to the incredible patience and dedication of both Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson, the book is centred on 1,300 wonderful colour photographs of live Australian spiders – as never before captured. For the reader, this book delivers an insight into a world that only a small suite of enthusiasts and professionals had been previously privileged to experience. Extraordinary that they also snapped pictures of male spiders of many species, which are invariably short-lived and tricky to find.

Robert has well utilised his extensive background in science and journalism. Passionate about nature and ecological restoration, he has long been a champion for educating the Brisbane community on the special values of our waterways. Since 2012, Robert has also participated in the Australian Government led Bush Blitz expeditions which seek new species, including spiders. This was a great opportunity for him to expand his spider knowledge, photographic library and scientific connections. Clearly aided by his enthusiasm, Robert has built an extensive professional network that includes among its members experts of particular spider groups in overseas museums, thus ensuring the scientific accuracy of this book’s content. This is a rare achievement, as many other Australian spider books have relied on limited professional advice to infer broader credibility of the text.

While Professor Greg Anderson is otherwise an esteemed medical scientist at the Berghofer Queensland Institute of Medical Research, he has long been fascinated by spiders. Through extensive travels here and abroad, Greg has been dedicated to photographing and learning more about spiders. As the reader can see in this book, he has a particular interest in members of the comb-footed family, to which the red-backs belong.

While the authors have carefully delivered the information in a style to suit all readers, they have also not shied away from the science, explaining key anatomical terms and the basis of taxonomy – the description of new species. In fact, by clarifying how little we know “The total number of Australian spider species is probably around 15,000 to 20,000. So far only 4,000 of them have been described…”. This book will hopefully encourage a new generation of arachnologists. Perhaps a reader can aim for a place in our spider-discovering history, which the book outlines from the inaugural works of the Germans, Ludwig Koch and Eugen von Keyserling in the later 1800s, through to current publications by our respected arachnologists. This past has been infused elsewhere, such as in the photo caption for the spiny orb-weaver Gasteracantha fornicata (95): “This was the first Australian spider described…collected by Banks and Solander from coastal north Queensland on James Cook’s voyage in 1770.”

Information about the biology of spiders is well delivered from up-front sections on behaviour, webs or burrows, through to specific notes included in photo captions that highlight interesting facts. I felt that the section on spinnerets, the organs that produce silk (up to seven types for different uses), did not do justice to the importance of this trait in spider evolution and diversity. Equally, I felt that the general role of spider eyes in reflecting how they engage with their world, and for identification (most spider families have eight eyes, some have six and many cave dwellers have none) could have been better explained. Nonetheless, there is more detail provided for each family, sub-family or genus throughout the book, and in photo captions. It is very helpful that spider size, in millimetres, is specified for each image given the large size range between species, or between males and females of one species.

The spider groups are arranged alphabetically by family throughout the main part of the book, including their sub-family groups of species. However, the more common families are separated from the lesser known families, which are again ordered alphabetically. Whilst I understand that the latter are encountered less often, I found this confusing and would have preferred to have all families in alphabetical sequence.

For the less experienced, there are also colour coded tabs on the pages that indicate general spider groups, such as orb weavers, crab spiders or mouse spiders. Unfortunately, the orange colour tab for the family Arkidae was missed in the legend. If you know the common name or scientific name though, you can use the comprehensive index, which is followed by a very useful index of family common names. Included at the very end is a family tree that illustrates the current understanding of how all the Australian families are related: to insects and other invertebrates; to other arachnids, and; to other families within the more primitive sub-order Mygalomorphae or the more evolutionarily advanced sub-order Araneomorphae.

On a technical level, I must note that the genus Idiommata was incorrectly attributed to the family Idiopidae, instead of Barychelidae (45). However, this lapse must only have been an editing oversight, as the genus is given the right common name for barychelids, and was not suffering from such an identity crisis in the barychelid section (384).  Whilst the “scary looking” trapdoors and tarantulas are treated with the respect they deserve, there is unfortunately no information on their conservation status. With the significant impact that collecting for the pet trade has had on tarantula populations, and the possible extinction of species, it would have been helpful to educate the interested public of their plight, through such a valuable reference book.

The amazing richness of the fauna is well exemplified through the many photos of species in two groups: classic orb-weavers (Family Araneidae, subfamily Araneinae) and jumping spiders, family Salticidae. Salticids include the incredibly colourful Peacock spiders that recently acquired social media fame through Jϋrgen Otto’s YouTube videos of their playful courtship behaviour. Whilst very diverse, they are clearly Robert Whyte’s favourite spiders with almost a fifth of the book dedicated to salticid images!

If the pretty spiders don’t tame the arachnophobes, perhaps the unusual spiders, such as the scorpion tails (54-55), lichen mimic (51) or mimics of the green headed ant (130), northern green tree ant (281) or green tree ant (350) can. At least the authors dispel the myths that promote public fear of spiders, such as that of white-tailed spiders causing rotting flesh and of daddy long-legs having high venom toxicity.

So the secret is out: our spiders are actually fascinating and offer a lifetime of discovery for both scientists and naturalists. I highly recommend this book, which you can trust to be the current authoritative reference on Australian spiders for your children, your community group or your own backpack!

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

(2017)

By Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson

CSIRO Publishing

ISBN: 9780643107076

464 pp

$49.95 (paperback)

 

 About the reviewer:

Dr Tracey Churchill has a Bachelor of Science, with Honours and Doctorate post-graduate degrees in Australian spider ecology. Tracey led the Australasian Arachnological Society for 5 years, producing and editing their regular publication, and was elected for a four year term onto the Executive Council of the  International Arachnological Society. Tracey introduced the use of spiders as ecological indicators of ecosystem health to Australia and developed this science as a Research Scientist with the CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems in Darwin over five years. Tracey has also been a taxonomist, describing new genera and species with the Queensland Museum, and had other specialists acknowledge her efforts by naming four spider species after her. Whilst Tracey has more recently been working in strategic policy for Queensland National Parks, she continues to educate the public, friends and family about the amazing diversity of spiders whenever possible.

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