Belgian-born environmental engineer Stéphane De Greef has a humorous yet insightful take on the field of biology:
I think every child is interested in nature until their mother tell them “Don’t touch that! It’s dirty! Dangerous! Disgusting!" Children who just ignore these warnings usually become biologists! In many of us, you’ll still find the same enthusiasm, passion and curiosity we had when we were children. It’s intense, it’s in us 24/7 and, frankly, it’s often contagious! When I was a kid, I lived near a small forest in Belgium. Every weekend, I would walk out early morning with my gumboots and my pocketknife and go exploring the nearby woods, streams and caves...And guess what? Thirty years later, I’m still doing the exact same thing. And I love it.
While he has spent over a decade in Southeast Asia, Stéphane is now spending an entire year in Panama’s Cocobolo Nature Preserve, studying arthropod diversity. He has a “soft spot” for ants and arachnids, and wants to “use my findings for awareness and education, and to promote the place so that more people can experience the rainforests and cloud forest first hand and understand why it’s so important to preserve it.”
He found the amazing organism pictured above while leading a group of students from Virginia Tech, collecting unusual arthropods. “So there I was,” recalls Stéphane, “walking in the rainforest with my gumboots, looking under rotting logs for unusual critters, when I noticed these small arachnids. Too stocky to be harvestmen. Too flat, thick and slow to be spiders. But I knew I’d seen them before in photos elsewhere: on Piotr Naskrecki’s Facebook wall.”
Stéphane collected several specimens and photographed them back at the research station, for the Meet Your Neighbours site. @sjl197 here on iNat was able to identify them as members of the genus Cryptocellus, which belong to the small arachnid order of Ricinulei, or the Hooded Tickspiders.
Numbering only 58 described species, little is known about the Hooded Tickspiders. They are tiny, usually only reaching 10mm in length; predatory; and have a retractable “hood” that covers their chelicerae (mouthparts). Lacking true eyes, they use the chelicerae and their long second pair of legs as sensory organs, and in males the third pair of legs are modified for copulation. In fact, this third pair of legs can be used taxonomically to differentiate between genuses and species. They are found only in the Neotropical region and West-Central Africa. Oh, and like ticks and mites, tickspider young only have six legs - the other pair grows in later!
Outreach is an important part of Stéphane’s work, and while he uses Facebook, he says it’s not great for organizing his data, “which is why I turned to iNaturalist. It allows me to share my findings in a nice, clean, efficient way, including my photos, my field notes and geolocation. I get the benefits of crowdsourcing the identification and people who are not keen on Facebook can still access my work. It’s nice, tidy and efficient, and the species catalogs are exhaustive and up-to-date...While iNaturalist hasn’t changed the way I interact and see the natural world, it definitely changed the way I share my discoveries with the world.”
- by Tony Iwane
- In case you wanted to know more about tickspiders...