What makes a story a good story? Well it turns out a lot of things. But one thing in particular seems to stand out: background. Think about it, the most compelling stories are those where the characters and their world has some gripping and complex story that, when woven together with current circumstances, creates an exciting and binge-worthy plot. Think Westeros from Game of Thrones, Snape from Harry Potter, or [insert anything other than Jar Jar Binks] from Star Wars. Knowing the background information makes for a much more interesting tale than just awesome battle scenes. You're probably saying, "get to the point, this is a science page not an e-how for content creation". But bare with me. Because in science, just like in our favorite stories, knowing the background information is very important.
Which brings us to my most recent collection trip to southern California, where competition between native black and invasive brown widows (Latrodectus hesperus and L. geometricus, respectively) continues. My goal heading down to Riverside was to collect a couple hundred brown and black widows to bring them up to Davis. Why go out of my way to capture black widows when Davis is crawling with them? Well because I'm interested in how the story of black widows from Riverside differs from that told in Davis. To be less esoteric, I wanted to collect native black widows that had been interacting with brown widows for a few generations; there are no brown widows here in Davis so that forced me to collect from Riverside.
But rather than just collect, I also took the time to collect what could be pretty insightful information on the widows. Upon collecting specimens, my Uncle (read: "super helpful research assistant") and I collected information on the spider's size, retreat height above ground, number of egg sacs in the web, number of prey items, and distance from nearest con- and heterospecific. The goal here, is to see just who is settled near who and a snapshot of those consequences. While this slowed down things quite a bit (shocker but busting out a tape measurer isn't nearly as fast as golf balling brown widows into vials), it should provide some key insight into what's going on between these two species.
This is the background information that's so crucial! By knowing snippets of information about the spiders before we even collect them, we have the potential to add more to the already interesting story of black-brown widow interactions. To be a bit more specific, we know that individual within both species exhibit consistent inter-individual differences in behavior (Behavioral types or BTs). Certain individuals are more aggressive than others while individuals also construct different web types (https://www.dirienzolab.com/research for more info). However we have no idea how that relates to interactions between the two species. For instance, do aggressive black widows build webs higher up? Do less aggressive brown widows settle near less aggressive black widows? All of this, as relatively easy as it was, can be half-way solved by collecting some background information. And even more importantly, it can be used to spur some potentially exciting future experiments!
Now of course, it's possible that none of the ecological data we collected turns out to correlate with behavioral types. Even that would be pretty interesting, albeit a slightly less exciting tale. That BTs aren't correlated with species settlement patterns and other factors, as unlikely as that would be, begs the question "well, how DOES random assortment of BTs across species influence fitness?"
So needless to say, as tired as I am staying up until 4 am avoiding raccoons, owls, and shady people, I'm pretty excited to have these spiders in the lab and to start running some cool experiments to see what I can find! Because although it takes only a little bit more effort, having the background information makes things a lot better.