Creepy and crawly study looks at P.E.I  spiders

Maureen Coulter
Published on February 1, 2016


 David McBurney and Judi Allen spent a good part of last fall whacking bushes and trees with their nets.

The couple was searching for eight-legged critters that many people are either afraid of or simply don’t like.

Along with 21 other citizen scientists, they were volunteering with a study that would help Nature P.E.I. paint a better picture of the types of spiders that live on Prince Edward Island.

“I was never squeamish about spiders, but I just hadn’t realized how many were out there. It’s just quite amazing,” said McBurney.

Prior to the study, the province had only identified 38 species of spiders — a stark contrast to Nova Scotia’s list of more than 400 spiders and New Brunswick’s more than 300.

Rosemary Curley, president of Nature P.E.I., said it was this large gap in spider knowledge that prompted a search for funding for this study.

“It seemed like a great project for Nature P.E.I., and the people proved that was right.”

The 23 volunteers, who first attended a public workshop, collected approximately 4,200 spiders from across the province.

McBurney and Allen ended up collecting around 400 spiders using pit traps and canvas bag nets in the Cardigan area.

“It wouldn’t be unusual to get 30 (spiders) in a 20-minute sampling,” said McBurney.

For each submitted sampling, volunteers had to fill out data cards to describe the habitat, along with compass co-ordinates.

Caleb Harding, a third-year environmental biology major at the University of Prince Edward Island, did the preliminary work with the spiders.

Harding sorted them into families and labelled them before sending them off to Newfoundland to be identified. The spiders were preserved in vials of alcohol.

“The biggest issue that I ran into while I was doing this study had to be just the overwhelming support that we had,” laughed Harding. “It was insane. Whenever you think of spiders, you wouldn’t think of everybody wanting to help out.”

Out of the 1,100 arachnids sent to Newfoundland in December, only 200 were adults. Thirty-three of those were identified as new for the Island.

Nature P.E.I. still has a backlog of over 3,000 spiders to be sorted and identified.

In the midst of their own research, Curley said they learned that others have been looking at P.E.I. spiders.

A DNA barcode study was conducted by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph on P.E.I. spiders. Between the Ontario effort and the Nature P.E.I. study, 169 spider species have been now identified, said Curley.

“It just goes to show that there are a lot of spiders out there, and probably we don’t notice them.”

Harding said spiders are an area where more research needs to be done.

“The numbers that we have are good, they are way better than what we had, but they are not good enough. There is still a lot more that we are missing.”

Nature P.E.I. has no plans to collect more until the current backlog of spiders has been identified.